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From where I’m sitting (literally – I’m in a temporary office while mine is given a face-lift, so I am perching opposite our library where the GCSE results were handed out), the dust had already settled on the GCSE results within a couple of hours of the doors opening, and the school is more akin to the Marie Celeste than the command centre for distribution and analysis of 1,158 different GCSE grades. I’m left wondering what they all added up to (not literally – the 64.4% A* total is etched on my mind and keyboard).

This year’s GCSE exams in English (language and literature) and maths were tougher, both in format (fewer signposts, more open-ended teasers) and content (more of it, and crunchier concepts). Despite some wonkiness in English language – not limited to Highgate – results in maths and English were at least as good as in previous years, and our overall results were in line with previous highs. Taken with our record A* count at A level – also tougher this year, and examined all at one go at the end of Year 13 – it feels as if a more challenging exam, or a procedural change to exam format, can raise attainment. Is it that simple?

It’s certainly the case that the GCSEs we have known have come as something of a disappointment when you hit Year 11. The exam technique is quite exacting, not because the questions are necessarily demanding of your higher reasoning skills but because so much hangs on particular types of response – key words or phrase; nailing six points in a set number of words. Quite often, the mastery of the content, of understanding, hasn’t presented much of a challenge to bright sixteen-year-olds, so they spend their time honing exam skills, and getting quite bored as a result. So a change such that work covered in Year 11 is a development of ideas, rather than regression at worst, repetition at best, must be good.

Highgate’s response to unhelpful exams has been to downplay their significance in setting out our educational stall, and to charge teachers with looking beyond exam criteria for their intellectual lodestars. Largely this works, and it attracts a certain kind of academically-minded, scholarly teacher to Highgate, people who palpably love their subject, for whom pedagogy is intimately linked to wonderfully partial trumpeting of the beauties of their intellectual discipline. Enthusiasm and interest trump raw ability time and again in such an environment. Curiosity, rather than star-collecting, as our motive.

GCSE results day is inevitably and properly a day for focus on, and celebration of, GCSEs themselves, and this year, perhaps, they really do say more about our pupils’ intellectual growth and the horsepower in their thinking, but even these more exacting, better aligned exams can only ever tell part of the story; it’s still a narrow range of intelligences which we choose to examine, and we all know what makes us, and what will make our children brilliant, will-be employees and entrepreneurs, wonderful, can-do citizens and loyal, loving friends, is not an exam, tough or otherwise. Let’s not forget to celebrate – where we see it! – our young people’s energy, ingenuity, commitment and self-propulsion, whatever the grade!

Adam Pettitt, 25 August 2017