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What to advise students who don't get the exam results they hoped for

One curriculum leader provides her advice about how teachers can support their students if the results envelope is the bearer of bad news on results day

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One curriculum leader provides her advice about how teachers can support their students if the results envelope is the bearer of bad news on results day

As the weeks of summer holiday tick patiently by, halls and corridors swell with silence, awaiting the return of footsteps, voices, hearts and minds in September.

Yet there are two strange, stand-alone days before the return. Two Thursdays in consecutive weeks in August when noses are pressed against school doors, phones and keys are clutched in hands, as parents and students hop from foot to foot in anticipation.

Two days when all the hard work supposedly pays off; when the ritual envelope opening reveals the A-level and GCSE results.

Two days when sometimes things can go wrong. When disappointments will and do happen.

Hovering somewhere on the spectrum between “Life’s a competition: failure is not an option” and “Hey, grades don’t matter; it’s who you are as a person”, is the practical reality that grades do matter if they are a passport to something you want to do, and the emotional reality that it feels really rubbish when you work hard and still don’t get what you were striving for.

Luckily, middle-aged hindsight offers teachers the perspective to know that, despite the fact that our life’s work in many ways depends on them, in the long run A-level or GCSE results disappointment is a mere blip for students. It can be overcome, there are options and life is full of opportunities whether or not you get your predicted grades. 

So what do you do on results day if the envelope is the bearer of bad news?

Here is the advice I would give to students.

On GCSE results day you are allowed to freak out, melt down, cry and indeed panic. But then listen to the wise words of Edna Mode in The Incredibles and pull yourself together: “Confront the problem. Fight. Win.”

How? Don’t talk to your friends (especially if they have got the results they wanted – it will make you feel worse).

Talk to your teachers. Your teachers, believe it or not, want to help you and know what to do in this situation. You are not the first person not to get the grades, and you have options. Your headteachers and deputy heads, heads of sixth form or Year 12-13 will be there on results day in person, others will be contactable by email or phone if need be.

If they know you are a motivated, hard-working student who has only just missed the grade, you may be able to negotiate a place in sixth form with the grades you have, or on the basis of a resit.

If you can’t stay on or get into your first choice due to your results, they will know what other courses or study centres you may be able to access. There will be further education options to follow a programme of study or apprenticeship while also resitting key exams like English and maths.

It is also worth checking out 8-year-old Demarjay Smith’s motivational speeches: "Either you must be the shark of the ocean, or the fish of the ocean", in order to get into action mode.

Stephanie Keenan is curriculum leader for English and literacy at Ruislip High School in London. She blogs at and tweets from @stephanootis

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