A level and GCSE results days like so many other aspects of our lives recently, were different again: an earlier publication date, together with the prospect of the first holiday post lockdown, meant that many school-leavers were away from home on the ‘Big Day’, so schools needed to be able to release results electronically. Having checked with leavers and colleagues, we rather regretfully dispensed with the on-site rituals: no gathering in front of the Memorial Gates for a 7:30 am opening; no bleary-eyed shuffle through the school library to collect the weighty envelope; no parental onlookers while same envelope was nervously teased open as far away from prying eyes as possible; no public hoots of joy and relief; no circumspect glances to check in with those whose news brought tears.
Like many other parents and carers, I was ringing my child to find out not only what her results were (we had agreed that I should not find out first) but how she would react: would the increase in higher grades mean she still felt her own efforts had been worthwhile and acknowledged? Would I manage to convey congratulations without making her feel that my love for her was or would ever be conditional on her doing well? Would I steer clear of downplaying or overdoing the well dones so they were deemed authentic? How much easier to do it all in person.
The professional duties had much the same feel to them. With news reaching my desk in regular email updates and hourly bulletins about the position in UCAS, the day had a familiar pattern of anxiety and of frustration as we waited for decisions, and excitement as places were confirmed or found, for sure, but it was novel and unusual to be gauging reactions over the ether and piecing together a picture through text and statistics rather than encounter and gesture. Still, the news was good and I wasn’t alone in feeling relief that the media anticipation of carnage in clearing was overdone: UCAS and university admissions offices had clearly worked miracles to process the effects of the pandemic on results and applications. If the focus was for once on whether exam results enabled young people to move on to the next stage of their lives – rather than on the comparisons between schools’ aggregated results in a league table – so much the better.
There were the usual media convulsions about the results, of course, but also a prevailing sense that we should focus first on those who do least well out of our current arrangements, the one in five 16-year-olds who leave school without five ‘pass grade’ GCSEs or their technical equivalent, and only then on those who will do very well in any system. In order to adjust the lens of scrutiny onto that one in five, we would need to somehow harness the momentum of the externally-driven adaptations (what the pandemic has done to schools and school systems – developing remote learning, deploying teachers to assess grades, for example) and make major changes to the way we have done things for decades. No doubt those changes will need to take into account the relevance of assessment at 16 now that the school leaving age has risen to 18 and the numbers going to university have climbed to 50% of school leavers, and much else besides.
I really hope that the policy-makers and decision-makers will start with the needs of those who appear to get least out of the schools they attend for fifteen years: that’s a must. It’s difficult to imagine that this won’t mean changes in school structure and systems, so painful to implement, which will reach across more than one legislative period. Just as they have (more or less) done during the pandemic, our politicians will have to reach across political divides to find these solutions.
It will be a challenge, to say the least, for the UK to achieve consensus about what we want and need from our young people in a society facing a climate emergency, a trust deficit in our political system, a job market radically affected by technology and AI, to say nothing of inequality, racism, questions about identity and a world order which is convulsed by all of these issues and others, and is turning to warfare and terror as a result.
But I would argue that these big problems, existential in their scope, need much of what we aim for at Highgate: minds to be sharp, instincts to be collaborative, intelligences to be flexible and problem-solving, voices to be articulate, judgement to be piercing. We will have to live less selfishly, and will need to bring out in the next generation the willingness to serve others, to root in their experience the fulfilment and value of service, the ability to see the unavoidable tension between the individual and the community as a balance worth striving and fighting for.
Feels and sounds exciting: let’s go for it!