A long time ago my friends and I took our GCSEs, which were then called ‘O’ (for Ordinary) levels. Not many grown ups appeared to give much of a care how well we did, including many of our teachers. The teaching was, by today’s standards, worse than ordinary. Still we did alright, mainly because we came from stable, happy, encouraging families which meant we had little to worry about over and above parties, boys and revision. Only a small fraction of our year group went on to study A levels. Many of our peers were horribly and lazily failed. It was clear even to our sixteen year old selves that the education system needed pulling up by it’s bootstraps.
Fast forward thirty years and the hysteria around GCSE results is hard to avoid. Now the successes and failures of our sixteen year olds are everyone’s business. Politicians are serious and measured and take care to namecheck grade inflation and global competitiveness. Head teachers earnestly praise the hard work and dedication of their pupils. Parents are proud. Young people are excited, relieved and proud and rightly so.
Distant relatives, family friends, friends of friends and friends of friends of friends and television reporters also get in on the act. There is an unseemly level of competitiveness. Or is that me being a curmudgeon? I don’t know. There just seems to be an awful lot of public boasting and prying and smugness. It’s not pretty. Some of it is quite mean.
For some young people and their families GCSE results are not the be all and end all (newsflash!). It will be hard for them, nevertheless to drown out the hoop-la and keep focussed on the end game, whilst not getting too down-hearted about having failed to make it through the narrow gate into the promised land. For some, that end game may be a career which suits less-narrowly defined skills (which for instance could go towards filling the significant and economy withering skills gaps in construction, engineering and horticulture).
In our (adoptive) family, GCSE time is converging with emotional upheaval around identity, loss and making sense of the past and future. It’s like being in a flimsy tent during a hurricane, when your torch has run out of battery.
I wish we could delay exams for another year, but we can’t so instead it has become a time for setting clear priorities. Our priorities right now are around emotional health and well-being, stability and therapy. Our measures of success are about remaining in some form of education and more important than that, the preservation and evolution of our family unit. A focus on education and training can come later. This sounds like an active choice, but it really isn’t. The emotional stuff is begging to be addressed right now. I fear that if it’s not recognised as a priority it will make itself heard and seen until it is made a priority, either that or it will all be too late. But how does this fit in with the ‘5 GCSEs and no excuses’ mantra that we get regularly beaten over the head with?
I’ve always had a sense that we will get there in the end, as long as we hold firm and remember what is important. It’s not easy. It’s like swimming against a very strong current. People shout at you from the shore. You doubt yourself. A lot.
Recovering from trauma, learning to live with what cannot be resolved and facing the most difficult questions about human strength and frailty are feats of the utmost human endurance. These achievements may not say much about intellectual rigour, but do speak loudly about a person’s resilience, perseverance and emotional intelligence. There are many ways in which a young person can pursue and become a success. We all know this and it’s popular to say it, even out loud, in public, but all the evidence (Facebook) points to the fact that we don’t really truly believe it.
When our young people begin to feel strong enough to think about the future, perhaps to engage with education in it’s wider sense, to embark on a BTEC, to retake some GCSEs or to start an apprenticeship or a part time job then we mustn’t forget to celebrate them too. They deserve it, because they will have achieved something significant with their hands tied behind their backs.
I wouldn’t for a moment go back to the rubbishy practices of my 1980s secondary school education, but I wonder if over-compensation (and fears over Far Eastern-dominated league tables) has swung things too far the other way. I’m not arguing for excuses, but I am making a case for reasons: reasons alongside services, flexibility, patience and support. It’s in all our interests that our young people get there, wherever that is, in the end.