This morning, across the United Kingdom, students who wrote their GCSE exams last May and June will be receiving their results at their schools. One after another they will open their envelopes and read the news. The results will determine where they go from here. Are their results good enough for their chosen Sixth Form College? Or do they have to make other plans, perhaps even pursue other career paths - or even abandon education altogether and go out to work in a job that does not require much formal education?
Of course, exams have to be taken. You have to measure academic progress and skill somehow. And of course there will always be those students who do well, and those who do not; it’s the way of the world. What I find incredible is the culture surrounding these exam results, and how they further reinforce a message to our young people that it is what you achieve, do or have that measures your worth. This message is utterly erroneous, and I think it is very sad indeed.
You can opt to receive your results by mail, but this means a delay, so in order to receive their results at the earliest possible opportunity, most young people attend their schools around 11am on the morning of results day. The reactions vary wildly from incredible joy to heartrending sorrow, all in a very, very public arena. It seems almost gladiatorial in its cruelty. Added to this is pressure from family and friends to know your results. Of course, it is lovely that they are interested in you, but it further exacerbates the pressure. Will they be proud of you or disappointed in you? At sixteen years old, it’s a huge question.
Exam results are even discussed in the news on results day. Often it will be reported that results are improving across the board, only for some bright spark to suggest that perhaps this means the exams were too easy. This leaves all those students who did well feeling somehow chastened, when actually they should be feeling happy and proud.
I’ve been at dinner parties on the eve of results day in the past where results were actually telephoned or texted through, in an almost bizarre parental competition. “My friend Sarah’s daughter has all A’s” or “John Smith’s son got all D’s” meant that somehow Sarah was special and lauded, whereas John was relegated to the lower echelons, and was greatly to be pitied.
I guess there are some cultural things that will never translate for me, despite the fact that I have been British now for almost longer than I was Canadian before my naturalization. I cannot see the value of these rituals surrounding examinations, any more than I can accept that it is a good idea to encourage young people to see their value as human beings more in the light of what they achieve or do than in the simple act of being. We are all precious in God’s sight, and we should all feel loved and valued by society, our families and most importantly, ourselves, regardless of what we accomplish, or in particular, what our GCSE grades are.
Incidentally, my son did well in his GCSEs, and has the marks he needs for the sixth form college he wishes to attend. It is not him I’m worried about; it’s the young people who are not walking home with smiles on their faces this lunchtime to face disappointment and upset in their homes and hearts. Yet on another level, I do worry about our son. What message has he got from today, especially as there is another “results day” to fact next year for AS levels and yet another the next for A levels? State standardized, centrally marked exams to determine your future? It sounds Orwellian, but here it is reality. Where is the optimism and hope that comes from realizing that not everyone is good at exams, and that there are all sorts of paths to a successful career, not just the more conventional, well trodden ones? Albert Einstein was not considered a good student, nor was Winston Churchill, but the world without their contributions would be a very different world indeed. Even Richard Branson was not considered a good student, yet no one could argue with his success today.
Maybe it is time to reconsider how we think about exam results. Perhaps more importantly, maybe we need to start considering how to get the message across to our young people (and in some cases older ones too) that your sense of your own or anyone else’s worth should never come from something outside yourself or them, nor should it come from anything that you or they are, have or do. One’s sense of self should be based on the fact that each one of us is a very important part of our incredibly diverse and amazing world. Nothing can change that, no matter what our exam results are.