An ‘A’ ain’t all that!
By | August 22, 2018

Ahead of GCSE results tomorrow a plea. Let’s have the stories of the ‘straight 9s’ – that still doesn’t sound quite right – and credit to those students and their teachers.

But let’s not repeat last week’s dearth of tales that share wider success. The silence of the educational grandees on the efforts beyond A*s or Russell Group shamed the sector. At best it shows a lack of consideration, of value; at worst it is part of a wider message about who they think are worthy of resources and effort.

The stories in response to this tweet were amazing – and showed success (and indeed failure and then success) in all of its richness.

To be clear. This doesn’t denigrate the efforts of those students best suited to the current examination structure. There is no doubt many of them worked hard – some of them like this example of a young refugee against the odds. Nor does it take away from the input of those teachers whose job is to teach to those selected to score more highly – at grammar schools or in ‘top sets’ (or in those schools that otherwise have ‘cleansed’ their intake.)

But that isn’t the true picture of education. Of the full diversity of young people and the amazing staff that work with them.

The stories of young people with SEND achieving remarkable success, such as this one and the young people who leave our special schools able to live independently.

Those who take a vocational route to university, to an apprenticeship. Or to other learning.

Those who move straight to employment. Or to start their own business.

Those who study a subject for the love of knowledge and the subject itself.

Those who fail. And then succeed.

Not for the first year politicians, civil servants and even parts of the trade press broadly ignored vocational results – with the notable exception of some great coverage on BBC on #btecresultsday and FE Week.

Failing to tell this rounded story denigrates the efforts of teachers who skilfully teach mixed ability groups and support all learners to progress. It dismisses the work of teachers who have chosen to work on vocational programmes. And ignores the work of school staff, specialists and parents who have supported those students for whom learning is more challenging.

It presents a narrative of value that contributes to parents and young people limiting their options to that which they know. Why would a middle class affluent parent consider a vocational scheme when the prevailing message is that this is lesser? Or consider an apprenticeship with implicit threat that your child won’t be part of the university ‘club’.

It suggests that failure is the end. Rather than just a change in the road map.

And with the images of ‘perfect’ young people getting ‘perfect’ results it screams that difference won’t be tolerated. And that anything less than perfect points to the oh so subtle message that failing to reach top grades is due to a lack of effort from the young person or disengagement from their parents. (Actually – not so subtle – that anything less than high academic success is linked to ‘lack of drive’ is a core message across the education establishment. Totally ignoring the fact that not everyone can get the top grades by design. And almost presenting the picture that those students and families deserve less resource….)

We have a system where the great and good have decided that being ‘like them’ is the marker of success and measure this through a narrow base of knowledge (that reflects ‘their knowledge’ and a – broadly arbitrary – set of exam processes (that works for children like ‘their children’). As long as those exam results are the keys that unlock progression then – of course – the best thing that we can do for disadvantaged young people is help them to achieve the best possible set.

So yes – teachers should focus on the best results across the full range of qualifications available.

But tell the whole story. Credit the widest range of learning. Because otherwise it looks like we only value children and young people who achieve ‘like us’. That we will only ‘rescue’ the ‘deserving poor’ who can reach ‘our standards’. That everyone else matters less.

We are in a time when resources are less; when the education system is accused of contributing to social exclusion and when university saddles children with a debt – that be may be double their parents’ annual salary – and a degree that does little to provide them with a ‘golden key’. What we say on pathways matters.

This is not just an issue of choosing images beyond the jumping blond girls or the annual slapping down of Jeremy Clarkson.

It’s an issue of what – and who – we value.


Every Child Should places a high value on children understanding the options available to them. In our Every Child Should ’50 Things’ young people told us that they wanted ‘to meet someone who had been to University and thrived’ and ‘to meet someone who hadn’t been to university and thrived’.