Why schools are not fundamentally about exam results

There is so much more to what schools do than cold results – they prepare young people for adulthood

Sats results: the data is not comparable because some types of schools are given leeway by the government, writes Michael Tidd

Thursday’s A-level results day was the first in 29 years on which I had no responsibility for what a cohort of students achieved. To be honest, it was a pleasant feeling. I used to hate results day.

I was privileged to run pretty high-achieving schools, and the morning would invariably start well: lots of happy 18-year-olds getting the places they craved at university, the anxious wait over, their hard work rewarded, smiley pictures taken.

By mid-morning, school had fallen quiet: those with cause to celebrate had left in order to do so. Those left behind were in no mood or position to party, because they hadn’t got the grades they needed. Some were on their mobiles, desperately hanging on in the digital queue to see whether their university might be persuaded to take them after all, or whether another would consider an application through the clearing process. Others, generally with an anxious parent or two in support, desperately sought advice and comfort from a teacher, desolate as their dreams had turned to ashes, weeping as they tried to plan a way forward.

Surely it doesn’t have to be like that? If only students could apply for university after they’d received their A-level results!

It’s a no-brainer. So much so, indeed, that this week saw a pledge from Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, to introduce a post-qualification application system (PQA). It sounds great, except that…well, Twitter quickly explained. Tes’ own Ann Mroz ironically tweeted a prophetic piece she’d written in 2011 about how PQA was imminent. Her colleague Ed Dorrell commented that this happens cyclically: someone suggests PQA, it’s greeted as a great idea till all the difficulties become apparent – then it’s invariably shelved.

Mary Curnock Cook, former boss of Ucas (the body that handles the whole mechanism of university applications) mourned wasting a year planning PQA: her scheme ran into the sand, yet again, because schools and universities alike reckoned they couldn’t squeeze the process into the summer months.

They can’t. One or other would have to move the start or end of their academic year, and only government could create and fund the consequent massive (and costly) disruption. But it can’t, or won’t, so every new plan for PQA goes nowhere.  

I can’t remove the strain and pain of results day: but I can offer teachers and school leaders a healthy distraction. After a tough results day (and a restorative gin, perhaps), pause to remember what you’re ultimately there for. It’s not fundamentally about A-level (or GCSE) results, important as they are. Schools are there to prepare children for the whole of adult life: you and they are in it for the long game.

I was reminded of this, education’s bigger picture, last week at the Edinburgh Fringe. There I saw, among other acts, a former student of mine. In his hilarious hour-long solo stand-up session, comedian George Fouracres charts his bewildered and bewildering journey from working-class Black Country lad to Fringe performer.

A working-class boy rendered irretrievably middle class by a posh school and even smarter university, he now belongs entirely to none of the various worlds he now inhabits. He writes and speaks as the classic outsider: side-splittingly comical, inspirational and moving all at the same time (there were tears at the end). He observes, analyses, treasures and mocks both what he’s experienced and achieved and the crazy but fulfilling life his education and upbringing have equipped him to lead. He also notes that, educated far beyond his three siblings, he’s by a long way the lowest earner of his family. He’s honestly and achingly funny about all of it.

I cite George to remind us all that, in the long run, each individual’s life, hope, humanity and love are much more important than those exam results which (as ASCL leader Geoff Barton tweeted on Thursday) don’t define who we are.

(If you want your educational vocation given a boost and can make it to the Fringe, go and see George Fouracres’s show Gentlemon at The Pleasance every afternoon at 3.30pm)

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