23/08/2017 12:49 BST | Updated 23/08/2017 12:49 BST

Success And Failure: Keeping Perspective During The Exam Season

The anticipation of exam results, the dry mouth, heart-racing moment when exam grades are revealed and joy ensues for thousands of students is a wonderful thing, but for some, the end of August will be the lowest point in a young person's educational life. We've already seen the A Level results, a rise in the number of A and A* grades, to an incredible 26.3%, but with new English and Maths courses, things may be different for GCSE students this year. We hope for success, but when we talk about exams, whose success are we considering? The assumption is the students' academic success, but of course, that's not the whole picture.

Firstly, will the new system itself be judged as a success or a failure? This year's students will be receiving a somewhat confusing spread of number and letter grades. The claim for a new GCSE system was that it would help drive up standards. The tougher subject specifications were meant to make courses more demanding. If marking remains broadly consistent, there could therefore be a drop in grades or greater mark inaccuracy with narrower grade bands. Of course, that kind of news can be spun, but it's not good press, for even though the old and new systems can't strictly be compared, they will be. The old pass mark of grade 'C' equals both a '4' and a '5'. '4' is a pass, but '5' is a 'good' pass so will those students receiving grade 4s see them as good enough and could this exacerbate feelings of failure?

It's an unpredictable situation and could prove difficult for schools. Each student's results comprise the perceived success or failure of their respective school, its curriculum and its leadership, as well as government education policy. Much is at stake. We know that there could be discrepancies between the kind of successes many schools have enjoyed in the past and the realities of this year's grades. Controlled assessment is gone, the numbers taking iGCSE are reduced and more students are taking English Literature, given English's weighting in terms of Progress 8 accountability. There's always an unpredictable element to exams, but given the breadth of change currently affecting the education system, even more is unknown. This new system needs time to settle. Indeed, schools won't have an absolute idea of how they've performed until the final Progress 8 scores are released in a few months time. 'Failure' this year, however it is measured, won't be a sign of long term decline, but an indication that changes might need to be made to better adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

Unquestionably, the most important factor to consider come results day is the students themselves. We can't protect them all from experiencing failure. We don't want them to feel so disheartened they don't try again, but neither do we want them to not care about the results they received. Such apathy would be troubling. We also need to make sure we don't trivialise failure. It may seem kind to dismiss poor results as 'just a bit of paper', but we should recognise that many young people will use these results to judge themselves. They may even feel that they've let others down. We need to make sure that we, as adults, in families, schools, government and the press, keep a sense of proportion. Failure is not the end of the world. It just means that success hasn't been achieved quite yet.


There will be a second chance. There always is in one way or another. Gaining a grade 4, rather than a grade 5, won't make students less able to achieve in the future. A grade 3 might not be enough now, but the knowledge needed to achieve that will be a block upon which students can build next term. Exam results are, after all, indications of performance on one day, not a lifetime.  We must remember that exams do not test all skills, just the ones laid out by a specification. They shouldn't suggest that untested skills aren't valuable in themselves. Failure is hard, but many others will be in the same boat and there should be pride in having tried. The key is perseverance and managing those feelings of failure. It's not that these students haven't achieved, but rather that they haven't achieved what they want to yet and hopefully their success will be the sweetest of all, for how would we recognise success if there were no failure?

It is right we aim for high standards. The exams we set must be rigorous and fair and students must be given the opportunity to engage in a wide range of subjects which will then be tested, but their importance must be balanced against so many other things. We must encourage a sense of proportion. Talking generally about rises and falls in the number of students who've achieved a particular grade might appear to help us see the bigger picture, but each student waiting for results is an individual who won't see their grades in the same way. We need to try and remember what it was like when we discovered our grades, in a world where not everything was instantly shared on social media.

Results Day is the end of a life stage, the end of formal education. That, in itself, is a success. Failure is relative. It can be desperately disappointing, but it isn't the end of the world. Students have learnt much of all their subjects, whether or not they've achieved their predicted grades. We must remember this success, as well as cheering those who have done well in the exams. How students adapt to their circumstances will be most important of all. We need to celebrate, support, keep perspective and encourage their resilience. Their adaptability will ultimately prove their success in a future we cannot know.