GCSE results matter and it's unrealistic to tell kids otherwise

It’s a tradition that has become as much a part of exam results day as the certificates themselves in recent years: hugely successful people with dazzling careers or multi-million pound empires revealing how they actually failed their exams many years ago.

The overriding message, of course, is that it doesn’t matter if young people fail their GCSEs or A Levels because life does not come to a halt with low grades. 

That advice is no doubt important, but when I see it now, the teacher in me feels it could be selling an unfairly idealistic view of the world outside of school to kids who are going to be in for a rude awakening when they enter it.

Whether it’s Jeremy Clarkson’s now (in)famous smug annual post reminding everyone he got a C and 2 Us in his A-Levels or a tweet from the Chase’s Shaun Wallace revealing he failed his own exams many years ago, it is important for young people and their families to see examples that success isn’t always linear and doesn’t have to mean acing your exams on the first go. 

In an increasingly competitive job market, employers look for academic success because it’s considered the more reliable litmus test. Places at better-rated colleges, sixth forms and universities rely on exam results. The best-paid grad schemes take the highest achieving graduates. 

It’s common around this time of year to hear about how a now-millionaire was a school dropout whose boss took a chance on him at fifteen and subsequently managed to work his way up to becoming CEO. 

We hear about popular figures who flunked their A-Levels, scraped into the closest university and had to work for free as a new graduate before getting their big break in the media. 

Excellent exam results can often be a ladder to climb over the barriers in the way of their success, and so it can feel false to amplify those high profile messages that the contents of that auspicious envelope doesn’t matter.  

Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want young people to do is to consider their futures over if their GCSE results don’t contain 9s today. 

I know more than most the importance of fostering resilience in the next generation. 

Yes, we need to celebrate the wins that don’t grab the headlines – the Cs and Ds from students who were expected not to turn up at all. 

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The borderline 5s from pupils who couldn’t speak English a year ago and support the perceived ‘failures’ too.

But at the same time, it’s important that we don’t sell young people the false image of our system being a meritocratic, fair, opportunity-filled utopia either. Not just because that doesn’t prepare them for the real world, but also because it prevents us from calling to account those responsible for the very inequalities that form these obstacles in the first place.

It helps nobody to focus on a past in which 3 Us could land you a place at a semi-decent university or how people managed to find themselves in charge of a multi-billion pound conglomerate when they dropped out of school at fourteen. 

Instead, we need to turn our attention towards how we can ensure young people today, whose academic journey may be curtailed by exam results, are still able to experience success – whatever that looks like. 

That might be improving the offer for apprenticeships that could be working to ensure that grade requirements better acknowledge the impacts of poverty; or it might be funnelling funding into schools to ensure that every single child – not just the academically elite – has access to the best quality education. 

Whatever the answer is, we need to focus on the future, not nostalgia for the past. No matter how tempting it is to brag about overcoming bad results. 

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