Are we too focused on exam results? Do your grades really define you?

Ellen's daughter

Ellen's daughter - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s 2.4 Children

I got a C for PE!?” came the horrified cry upon opening the school report.

“Who cares about PE?” I replied. “You’ve done really well in all the subjects that count.”

“I care,” my six-year-old said pouting. “How could they give me a C for anything?”

How indeed? Grades are given for effort rather than achievement at primary school and while my daughter might not be a future Olympian, I know she always does her best.


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“Just don’t get hung up on grades,” I told her. “They are not the be all and end all.”

Funnily enough this was a message echoed last week in a headteacher’s letter which went viral after being posted online.

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The note told pupils that there was much more to life than exam results.

“The scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything,” it said. “So enjoy your results and be very proud of these but remember there are many ways of being smart.”

Like many others I found the words inspiring – not least because they resonate strongly with my own experiences of school and the workplace.

Now I suppose you would say that – on paper – I look pretty clever. I went to one the best schools in the country, achieved mainly A grades, attended a superb university and went on to do a postgraduate degree.

But do you know what? Just because I never took my foot off the academic pedal, does not mean I am vastly intelligent.

I passed my French GCSE with flying colours but cannot speak a word of it. I got a distinction for an essay on novelists at A-level but can’t get past chapter five writing my own. I have read books by some of this country’s greatest writers but would rather pick up a trashy thriller on holiday. And I may have mastered the art of quadratic equations at age 14 but these days I struggle to do the simple sums needed to complete my tax return.

The truth is a lot of what I learnt was useless to me in real life and as such, I’ve forgotten 95% of it.

My husband on the other hand, is the poster child for the Education of Life.

He went to a fairly rubbish school, got poor exam results, went to a second-rate university.

But he is by far and away the most dedicated, ambitious and educated man I know.

He learnt about things he was interested in rather than what he was told to study at school and therefore retained every bit of that information.

As a result he is the person everybody wants on the team for the pub quiz.

Now it would be stupid for anyone to say that school exams and grades do not matter at all. They do.

But only in so much as providing a stepping stone to the next stage.

Your GCSE results determine which A-levels you take. Your A-level grades help you secure a place at university. Your degree helps you land a job.

But trust me, the vast majority of employers are not really interested in whether you achieved a 2:2 or a first.

Because unfortunately for all those kids who got straight As all the way through, how well you take a test is not indicative of how well you will thrive in the real world.

Your grades do not define you and your worth is not dependent on a number.

If you ask me it’s that ideology – that exams are paramount – which is wrong with education today.

If we tell children their academic achievements define their merit, the subtext is that without them they are worthless.

Now my daughter’s school certainly does not do this.

It was one of the reasons why we chose it in fact.

It celebrates achievements outside the perimeters of academia. It helps nurture children’s abilities and sees them as individuals.

It manages to be what all schools should be: places where pupils are valued for their uniqueness, but where they also leave with tangible evidence of their educational achievements.

Now my daughter is no Einstein. She is distinctly average in her grades, slightly behind with her maths and lacks any sporting prowess.

But she is a happy, bubbly, interested, engaged and inquisitive kid who is as special and unique as the rest of the members of her class.

This is a child who made £15 selling loom band bracelets to family and gave it all to charity.

This is a girl who spent a year collecting rubbers only to give them all to her friends because “sharing is a nice thing to do”.

This is someone who wants to learn to cook so she can help me at home, who knows what all the road signs mean and points out when her father goes over the speed limit, who prefers to watch the news than children’s TV, who sings her brother to sleep and won’t eat meat because she understands where it comes from.

She is a child who is aware of other people, who empathises, sympathises, understands and asks questions.

And she is also a kid who doesn’t give up easily.

The day after the reports came home it was School Sports Day.

She came down to breakfast looking glum.

“It’s not about winning, it’s about having fun,” I said brightly, handing her a plate of scrambled egg.

It was blisteringly hot on the playing field with dozens of parents lining the race track.

I spotted my daughter sat under a gazebo with friends and gave her a cheerful wave which she didn’t return.

“Oh dear I think she’s a bit worried about not doing well,” I whispered to another parent.

The children took up their positions on the start line. The whistle blew.

And my daughter took off like a rocket, winning first place.

Hot and sweaty she beamed at me from the finish line with both thumbs up.

And in that moment her disappointment over that C grade vanished completely.

Find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup

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