Today, my baby brother will be among the tens of thousands of pupils collecting their GCSE results.
Ever the sensitive sibling, I decided to initiate a heart-to-heart on the eve of this significant occasion. It’s a stressful time, and while I’m confident that my brother’s hard work will have paid off, I was expecting a few jitters. It’s a big day, isn’t it? Future hanging in the balance, and all that?
“Not really,” he shrugged, one eye still on the television. “The hard work is done, so I can only see what happens.”
I was unprepared for such wisdom from one who so often fails to put away his own socks. But then he surprised me further:
“Anyway, what I get doesn’t matter all that much now that Brexit has ruined my prospects.” And with a melodramatic sigh, his full attention returned to The Big Bang Theory.
At the time of publication, the precise impact of Brexit on my brother’s future could not be speculated upon. But his comments revealed a cynicism around his results – the results that he spent years working towards, supported by talented and dedicated school staff – that made me quite sad. Why has his personal success been overshadowed by concerns about ‘the bigger picture’, before he has even opened the envelope?
Admittedly, it is not helpful to forget about the Big Picture in all the hype of results day. I suspect that my brother’s attitude is also due, at least in part, to being the youngest of four children; he has watched his older siblings survive the day, and go on to achieve their own success and happiness with three completely different sets of grades. He knows that while it is an important moment, it is not necessarily a defining one.
It’s a different kettle of fish among school leaders, however. There has been a palpable rise in tension among the educators in my life over the last few weeks. They had it under control at the start of the summer holiday, but as the weeks passed one couldn’t help noticing signs of sleep deprivation creeping in. I began finding Progress 8 calculations scribbled on the back of Nando’s napkins. The temporary shrine I discovered in our back garden to the god of grade boundaries was particularly unexpected. It brings out the oddest behaviour in the unlikeliest of school leaders; my prevailing memory of my own results day is of the assistant headteacher, a man who spent years cultivating a formidable bark and a fearsome reputation, dashing it all in the space of an hour as he danced a nervous jig around the hall and squeaked his congratulations in a tuneful soprano.
A day that can be so unpredictable yet so closely tied to performance management targets is bound to be met with apprehension, and the media hype doesn’t help. Like every other results day, 25 August 2016 is awash with statistics, analysis, commentary and comparisons. (Make a game of it with TES’s results day bingo, if you fancy a light-hearted take on the furore.) This will become even more fun over the next few years as we navigate the transition to a new grading system, starting with the results for English literature, English language and maths in August 2017.
A good school leader cannot help but feel the pressure of accountability for their pupils’ outcomes – it goes with the territory. But if those outcomes are not what you’d hoped, even after giving those pupils everything you possibly could, you can take immense pride in what you have achieved.
As one school leader put it to me:
If you’ve taught children to work towards a goal, and have done everything you can to help them achieve it, that is a lesson they will carry with them for life, even if they didn’t achieve that goal this time.
There will be children who will always remember you for that.
Whatever the outcome today, I will be making sure that my little brother takes time to celebrate his achievements, and I would encourage you to do the same. He and thousands of other young people are facing a successful future not just because of the grades they see today, but because of everything else you have given them.
So before we all rush headlong into the new academic year, on behalf of The Key I would like to offer hearty congratulations on your personal successes in 2015/16, and thank you for all you did this year to give our young people the best opportunities possible.