Gaynor Allen: Knee-jerk reactions to exam results

Pupils across the country received their results this week. Picture: Getty
Pupils across the country received their results this week. Picture: Getty
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As exam results arrive, the laughter rings out and the tears flow, there are some nasty habits we must put aside, writes Gaynor Allen

LAST week, I was one of thousands of parents across Scotland woken in the middle of the night by an anxious/delighted/devastated child who had just received their exam results.

My daughter was one of nearly 37,000 pupils who opted for text and e-mail results, but many more spent the morning anxiously waiting on the postie for the white (not brown) envelope which contains information that will determine the immediate course of many young lives.

Some of the 150,000 young people who received Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) results this year will move on to university or college – and the start of the journey towards work and independence. Others will get the job or training place they wanted.

Yet for many, the contents of their envelopes proved devastating as they missed the target. How hard to have your dreams shattered when you are as young as 15? There is always a way forward, but try telling that to a tearful teenager whose grades fell short of their immediate aspirations.

No-one needs reminding that we are in a really tough economic climate. Today’s school leavers face strong competition for university, college and training places, high levels of youth unemployment and an increasingly difficult future if they have few or no qualifications.

This week, a study by the Prince’s Trust claimed a third of young people leaving school with poor grades fear they face a life without hope and believe a lack of qualifications will force them to abandon their ambitions and leave them on benefits.

This tells us something about the pressure they are under, and there is no doubt the stress of waiting for results is severe.

Yet, the hard work and effort of young people is being undermined by the annual ritual which insists better results simply mean exams are “dumbing down”.

I think ‘Give them a break’, as I remember the same stories when I sat my exams in the 1980s.

As the chairwoman of a secondary school parent council and a mother of a daughter who has just passed five Highers, I am dismayed by such negativity.

Every year, there is a great deal of analysis, which is understandable as our exam system has to face scrutiny. Yet the narrative is predictable: exam results up = dumbing down; exam results down = dumber young people and falling standards. Isn’t this lose-lose situation just a wee bit too simplistic?

We all want a strong and fair exam system, but do these knee-jerk reactions represent the reality of education in Scotland? Even more important, is it fair to the 150,000 candidates who sat their exams this summer?

This is not an easy time for young people who are trying to make big decisions at a time when many of them are ill-equipped to do so. They have not fully matured, they are in the midst of teenage angst and their emotions are caught up in a maelstrom of relationships. Should we really be adding to their woes by telling them the exams they worked hard for aren’t good enough?

My daughter has five decent Highers and is considering her options as she prepares to go into sixth year. Some of her older friends were sitting on unconditional places for university and college, but others are uncertain what to do next. Some have struggled through the clearing process, which can be agonising and difficult. Try telling a young person who is one A, B or C away from getting the place they dreamed of that the exams are too easy.

I find it depressing that everything about our education is met with such constant negativity. Yes, we need to constantly ensure our system is as good as it possibly can be and challenge where necessary. I have long argued that there is too much jargon making Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) impenetrable and we still have a postcode lottery of school standards.

Yet there are also some very positive things going on. Scottish kids have many benefits, especially when compared with their counterparts south of the Border who are heading back on a chaotic journey to a purely exam-based system under the regressive reforms of Education Secretary Michael Gove, a Scot.

In Scotland, CfE might not be perfect but it represents a genuine attempt to prepare young people more effectively for the modern world and to accept that everyone is different.

I am tired of reading that by dumbing down the qualifications, our young people will not be able to compete on a world stage and that Scotland is falling behind in a global market. Our education system can and does compete internationally, and it will continue to do so. CfE has many supporters at home and abroad and it is a well thought-out philosophy which should – given the chance – enhance the education and opportunities of all our young people.

Right now we need to congratulate the kids who have done well and commiserate and support those who haven’t.

We are also thinking about our son, who is among the first group to sit the new National exams. I hope there will be a more rational debate in general, concentrating on getting it right for young people and not just issuing a blanket condemnation because the system has changed.

Maybe we can put the predictable reactions aside next year and give our kids a bit of space to celebrate their successes and consider the next step in their education journey. Given that the 2014 exam results will be published just weeks before the independence referendum, that is probably a forlorn hope.

• Gaynor Allen is chairwoman of Musselburgh Grammar School and Campie Parent Councils in East Lothian