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GCSE results day: do grades really define achievements?

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I hardly remember my GCSEs. I can’t remember the exam questions, and I can’t remember where I opened my results or who I was with.

However, I do remember sitting in an exam hall and barely being able to see my exam paper through my itchy and streaming eyes – why timetable exams at the height of hayfever season?

I also recall one of my friends turning up to an exam after having had his previously thick, jet-black eyebrows waxed for the first time. It caused quite a stir, and the start of the exam was delayed while the invigilators calmed everyone down. He never waxed them again.

I remember the nerves more than anything, particularly when it came to results day. So I can empathise with the thousands of 16-year-olds who will be receiving their results today. I can also empathise with those who are taking to Twitter, using humour to mask their concerns about not quite making the grade.

My colleague Amy has recently written for Key insights about the impact of exams on pupils’ mental health. Her concerns appear to be warranted, as earlier this week Orli Vogt-Vincent, a 16-year-old awaiting her results, wrote an eye-opening insight into the pressures of the English education system.

Orli asks sound questions about what achievement actually means at the end of Key Stage 4. She found that facts and statistics crushed her creativity, and soon realised that her future would be determined by a set of criteria created by exam boards.

Is achievement defined by the number of A*-Cs a student gets? At 16, it can feel like it, with the pressure to meet targets, go to sixth form, take A-levels and go to university. And for the teacher and the school leader, there’s the pressure of accountability and performance tables.

Laura McInerney has pointed out in the Guardian that for some pupils, achievement cannot be defined by GCSEs. It could, however, be measured in different ways.

For example, for the pupil with English as an additional language, achievement can be measured by the number of phonemes he or she has learned. But even for those that do take GCSEs, have they not had successes elsewhere that cannot be measured by an exam question and a grade?

My concern is that this narrow view of achievement could be intensified by the introduction of new GCSEs from next month.

While they may have many merits, I worry that the new qualifications’ linear nature and focus on examination will continue to lead students to believe their achievements will be defined by two weeks of testing. Or, as Orli writes, the difference between success and failure will marked by “one set of answers”. And for Muslim pupils, those precious answers will be written without fuel, since GCSEs are likely to fall over Ramadan over the next few years.

If I could pass on some advice to those picking up their results today, it would be: don’t panic. If the grades are not enough to get you on to that A-level or college course, there are other routes into post-16 learning or employment.

I remember feeling that nothing less than 5 A*-Cs would be acceptable. I had to go to sixth form, I had to go to university. It felt like a vocational route wasn’t an option when I was offered careers advice back in 2006.

Now, I envy my friends who did take that route, as many of them have considerably more work and life experience than I do. It is at least good to see that the Department for Education is now doing more to broaden access to less traditional post-16 learning.

Or perhaps we should my ignore my advice and listen to others who are eager to make it clear that qualifications are not the be all and end all …

Jeremy Clarkson, speaking for the people …

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