Education Matters: Years of work put to the test as pupils in Suffolk complete their last A-level and GCSE exams

Exam time

Exam time - Credit: PA

This time of year in secondary schools is one of mixed emotions, writes head teacher Geoff Barton.

There’s exam tension of course, the anxiety of several years of students’ work being put to the test – literally – in a two-hour final exam.

Even after almost thirty years as a teacher of English, I share with colleagues a nervousness which translates into sleeplessness the night before GCSE and A-level papers. We know how much these exams matter. They are also how our own skills as teachers are judged.

So I can’t imagine ever not caring about what an examination paper is like, or a time when I don’t lurk apprehensively outside the sports hall at the end to hear from students how it went and what they thought of the paper.

There are other prevailing feelings at this time of year because it’s when we bid farewell to some young people. A couple of weeks ago our oldest students – ‘upper sixth’ as they were once called – reached the end of 13 years of education, most of them now about to step into the more independent world of university and college.

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Their emotions mix excitement at the prospect of life’s frontiers stretching out ahead of them, plus nostalgia that their school days are over, and that inevitable tinge of uncertainty at a daily life without the sometimes irksome, sometimes reassuring routines and rituals that schools provide.

Then last week our Year 11 students embarked on study leave with an assembly that combined awards, speeches, funny and poignant videos, and the sense that one important stage of their lives was about to merge into another. All of these students, once their GCSEs are behind them, will remain in education. Most will return to our sixth form. Others will head into college and training.

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So it’s not exactly the end of an era. Yet it feels like one.

This was one of those moments when we sense that there’s a marker in our lives, a threshold crossed, a palpable gear-change in what we do and where we go.

In my farewell assemblies I usually say to students a something that surprises them. I reveal the dark contradiction at the heart of school life. Firstly, I say, exams matter a lot. Secondly, I add, exams don’t matter much.

This, predictably, confuses my audience. But I believe it and I have the terrible results to prove it – various woeful grades at O-level and A-level that characterise my lack of academic distinction when at school.

Fortunately, I’ve reached the stage where no one judges me any more by my exam results, or even asks about them.

So, I tell students, exams are an important way of gaining external recognition of what we know and what we can do. We will be judged by them. So will your teachers and your schools.

Exams matter because they open doors to the next phases of our lives – to the sixth form, to college, to university, to employment.

But exams also don’t matter a lot. As a school, we won’t encourage students to take more exams than they need. We don’t pack their pockets with qualifications in order that we propel ourselves up the league tables. We think that exams are important but not that important.

We are determined instead that our students should have other facets to their lives – being happy, healthy, creative, risk-taking, charitable and kind. We want them to know about the world, to take an interest in it. We want them to feel a sense of mission that their generation needs to do more than our generation to safeguard our beautiful planet and to attack the inequalities of a rich northern hemisphere and an impoverished southern one.

These things are not mutually exclusive, of course. You can do well in exams and be a great human being. That’s what we want for all our students, whatever their backgrounds and abilities.

But maybe amid the pressure of examinations, which can result to the sacking of headteachers and the decline in a school’s fortune – maybe we do just need to remind students that exams matter a lot and, at the same time, they don’t.

The kind of person you are matters far, far more.

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