Exam Results 2021 …let’s make it about the pupils

Monday 9 August 2021

It’s the eve of A level Results day in England, with GCSEs following, hot on their heels. Always a tense time for so many pupils and parents but: throw in 18 months of  covid-chaos in our educational establishments; toss in the word ‘ teacher assessed grades’ and stir it all up with accusations of ‘grade inflation’ and speculation of a landslide of appeals and our scandal-seeking national media look set for a bumper week of headlines.

Is it unfair to suggest that the press and politicians and ‘joe-public know-alls’ sometimes forget that pupils lie at the heart of this…

Our house is on edge, anxiously awaiting A level results for Prom-dress daughter. Like many pupils in her position, this set of grades represent hard work and talent but even more importantly a whole ton of resilience and grit. Yes, it is remarkable that so many of these pupils kept going. Kept going through: home-learning, blended learning, lockdown, unlocking, mass testing, endless isolation orders  and … to cap it all an anxious assessment marathon, hastily cobbled together at the eleventh hour by an incompetent Department of Education. Let’s spare them headlines that make ill-informed shots at the validity of their grades; they deserve every success and every bit of praise their schools and families can lavish upon them. For those who don’t receive exactly the scores they hoped for … I think we know that they have learned how to pick themselves up, learned how to adapt…. I think they need to be reassured that they  will be okay.

For whilst my daughter and others collecting results are typical of most examination age pupils, there is another group whose story is even less likely to be told.  As we dispatched out Teacher Assessed Grades in June there were a small number of young people receiving no grades at all. And we are not alone. In July 2021, the TES in their article ‘Most teachers had GCSE evidence gaps‘ found that over 70% of teachers had pupils for whom they could not evidence a grade.

The article explores many reasons for this saddest of situations; mental health, bereavement, school refusal, the causes are numerous. There is an even more serious issue too, some of our pupils are actually lost. Lost to education and … missing. Quoted in a Times article, Anne Longfield, former children’s commissioner reported that,

” …the state had lost track of tens of thousands of pupils who had gone “off grid” during the pandemic…” 

Her fears for these vulnerable young people centre upon the threats from criminal gangs and the dark cloud of county lines that casts an ever present shadow over our school communities.

Is there a place for this cohort of pupils on results day? I’d like to think that there was … because I really believe in educational care. I’d like to say ‘come back to us‘ even if you haven’t gained a single grade. We have time for you too today. We’ll find you a path. We’ll help you take that first step. We are … still here. Because 18 months of a global pandemic has re-emphasised one thing so clearly to those of us privileged to work in our high schools and colleges, pupils are not just a set of exam statistics, and a list of grades, they are complete and unique young people. And they flourish with our amazing knowledge but also our care and encouragement that helps each one to see how much they matter and what the best version of themselves might be.

So please…  let’s make this week’s results days about the pupils… about all the pupils….

Turning 18…

Sunday 8 August 2021

This week Prom-dress daughter turns 18 … and, for the first time in quite a while, I wobble …

I don’t actually think it’s the birthday weekend itself. Celebrations, that start with a lovely family meal in a city restaurant and quickly become more raucous and merry as relatives give way to friends, fizzy wine and a hot tub in the garden, seem fun. Seem joyful. Seem happy.

I don’t actually think it’s the milestone either. Yes my middle child is now officially an ‘adult’ and, after 18 month of lockdown restrictions in this North West town, is more than ready to head out into town, brandishing her ID to make the most of newly re-opened bars and venues. But, let’s face, that’s just the fun part of being a grown-up. I am sure that I shall be parenting, financing, providing support and guidance … and being taken for granted for a few more years yet.

I start to feel emotional when I turn the clock back 18 years, to the traumatic days of her birth and think about that first week of life on NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). Although the experience, so far removed from the joyous picture you have of giving birth and bringing your new child home, adopts a surreal dream-like quality, certain moments and phrases still dance around my head, with chilling clarity, to this day,

come through to the family room, the consultant will be free to discuss this with you shortly”

” a number of seizures…. loss of oxygen to the brain”

“the next 48 hours will be critical…”

But, you meet some truly inspiring people in the NICU community. Heroic parents who have battled for weeks by the sides of those incubators … and never complain. Instead they wrap you, the dazed newcomer, in their love, support and camaraderie. The doctors and nurses, who so quickly learn your name, as well as your child’s, and take time to care and communicate, so that you feel like a person who matters and not just another patient on a lengthy list. And Prom-dress daughter herself, such an incredible little bundle of fight and fury that we only stayed for a week before being discharged, albeit with a few more tubes, dressings and needle marks than the typical newborn, into outpatient care.

It is in this context that look at her now. She did make it through the next 48 hours; she made it through the 2 years of neurological check-ups and testing, … she made it to 18 and a brilliant 18. If I stop to think… it feels a little overwhelming. But, she is an August birthday and with examination results out next week, I also know that I may not have too much time to dwell.

If she gets the grades she needs, in less than a month Prom-dress daughter will be off to Uni. As my middle child, she is naturally the buddy of choice to each of the other two and they both adore her. She is a unique mix: super high maintenance but warm, accepting, funny and incredibly smart. We sometimes call her the ‘heart beat of our household’ and suddenly I know why I’m wobbling. The 18th birthday has started the clock ticking down to the time when she sets out to make her own way in the world. She is definitely ready; I am just not sure that I am prepared to let my little ‘incu-baby’ go …

Show me to the flat pack…

Saturday 17 July 2021

Sometimes, as I am scooping spiders out of bathrooms, battling with the lawnmower, jolting around the estate with learner driver Prom-dress daughter at the wheel or shoulder-barging Small boy at basketball, I do appreciate that single parenthood equips you with skills you never foresaw when discussing your life plan with the school careers advisor. And this weekend, marks a true Everest of personal achievements….

After a few covid-19 delays, we are collecting my Eldest from her new student house in the North East for the Summer. She calls midweek with a request,

“Mum, could you bring a screwdriver and hammer on Saturday? I’ve got to make a chest of drawers.”

And so it is, that just after noon and a drive up the A1, I saunter into the student kitchen brandishing our family tool box and drill.

Oooh how professional! ‘ coos one of her housemates.

And it makes my day! I feel like some empowered, positive role model of female capability and follow my Eldest to her room with my head held high!

What the lovely students don’t know, but the rest of my household do, is that I only really have one professional piece of kit with me in the car… and that is my middle child. But in the searing heat of a third floor attic room, I have been inspired to play my part. Prom-dress daughter has the plan and gives the directions but, doing exactly what I am told: I drill, I hammer and I dowel like a trooper.

We stop for lunch out, in the vibrant and trendy cafe-bar area my Eldest now lives in and, then return to complete our mission. What a triumph! Never has a pretty basic set of drawers looked better in my eyes. The sweat, the plastic burns (long story), the occasional splinter … all worth it! It was, I have to concede, as a former scorner of DIY, strangely satisfying slots and fitting it all together. I celebrate with a murky cup of tea, from the student kitchen that has just run out of milk, and then we hit the road.

My younger pair share a Spotify Account, and we sing our way back down the motorway to their assorted play lists. Weary but happy, we arrive home midway through Saturday evening.

Have I morphed into some building stereo-type, I ponder as a I wave aside a gin and tonic and treat myself instead to a couple of cold beers? And possibly it is the beer talking as I announce that our next holiday project is demolishing the dilapidated old garden shed …. ourselves. Let’s see if I am still as enthusiastic after a good night’s sleep…

April ends…

30 April 2021

We survive 30 crazy days. I’m trying to fathom English Summer exam regulations as a teacher. Prom-dress daughter is stuck in the middle of it as a stressed and strained A level student. The goal posts change daily, the assessments seem never-ending. But we keep going and, out of the blue, we get our reward.

I am driving home from work on Thursday when an excited voice bursts through on the hands-free

Mum …I got into Edinburgh!”

Its her top choice and they have certainly kept us waiting! The UCAS form went in before Christmas, tomorrow it is May. But I push all this aside because they have finally given my little super star a (reduced) offer and she is over the moon.

We celebrate with wine and chips. We spend a joyful evening browsing Uni accommodation. And the change in my lovely girl’s spirits: her smile, her radiance, the light in her eyes…it is just beyond compare.

So farewell April 2021. You will ever have a place in our hearts…

Home for the hols…

Tuesday  22 December 2020

One of the most shocking stories, in a weekend of dramatic news, is the closure of the Dover-Calais crossing which leave thousands of lorries and passengers stranded, for days, on British motorways. Closer to home, with Christmas only days away, it also fuels fears of food shortages on our supermarket shelves. Amidst reports of ‘panic-buying,  I contemplate the best time to brave the aisles for the annual yuletide shop. Someone else has other worries on their mind,

“Gosh – could it lead to an avocado shortage? That would be terrible!”  exclaims my Eldest.

I reel around. Prom-dress daughter splutters on her coffee. Small Boy is frozen, his cereal spoon midway to his mouth, then turns to stare too. My lovely daughter, just smiles at us all,

What? I’ve just got a great new recipe for smashed avocado and chilli…”

Yes, my first-born is back from University for the holidays!

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this first home-return. Several decades ago, I recall being an utter pain and, more currently, several witty articles warn parents to ‘brace’. But my girl has been an absolute delight. The old adage says that ‘education broadens the mind‘. Whilst some may challenge this, the recent interesting study by Jessika Golle of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, finding that it was not that University broadens minds, rather that work ‘narrows them‘, my daughter is noticeably more open minded…and not only in terms of her culinary choices! Her views on environmental issues, mental health and well-being, the value of money and so many more issues have all developed and deepened since she left our homestead 3 months ago. 

She also brings a refreshing independence into the house, which supports, rather than challenges my weariness and working hours. I arrive home to meals on the table. She does all her own washing.  She encourages the other two to be a little more self-sufficient. And all requests, to do any activity or meet anyone, are delivered with a courtesy and respect I find astonishing. Don’t get me wrong, we have always been close, but towards the end of Summer, she was clearly ready to strike out and make her own way in the world. And occasionally this lead to friction and resentment at having to follow someone else’s rules. Teenage brains are, after all, programmed to rebel in the important quest for independence (Blakemore et al)

So, whilst I steeled myself for a bumpy ride with student vacation number one, it has been a joy. My daughter seems completely at ease with herself and all of us. Is it meeting new people? Is it having a clear sense of purpose once more after the long months of Lockdown? Is it a reflection of her happiness with life? I am not sure. What I do know is that she lights up the day and that her visit is a huge boost for everyone in the house. The odd crazy food request… a quirk we can all accommodate!

With a smile, I add ‘avocados’ to my lengthy shopping list, accept my Eldest’s cheery offer to come with me and we head out together to re-stock the cupboards

Let’s hope those horrendously caught up in the chaos and gridlock at Dover make it home for Christmas too…

Just a call…

Tuesday 13 October 2020

It is 6pm. I am just packing up for the day when my Eldest calls. It’s been a hell of a day.

Another

We confirm a member of the school community has tested positive for Covid-19′ day

Another

‘We are diverting all staff onto emergency cover until half term’ day

Another

Teach your lesson; post your lesson; live stream your lesson; everything three times your lesson’ day

Another

Your fault. Follow the rules. Don’t blame test and trace. Schools stay “open”. We’ve given you three extra weeks, … We’re all in this together‘ day

I push it all aside and tune into my daughter’s bubbly chatter.

It’s true, she has blown month one’s budget in just over 2 weeks and a giggly, joyful voice takes me through the mis-calculations and ‘very valid’ reasons why ‘money’s running a bit low’. I hear crazy tales of cinema bookings for Newcastle-under-Lyne instead of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surprise of finding yourself in a screening of ‘Harry Potter‘ … instead of a romcom. I hear about mishaps with keys and the saga of a broken phone screen. I hear the cheerful acknowledgement that arriving in the North East with a suitcase full of crop-tops but no winter coat probably wasn’t her wisest move…

And I hear, life and laughter and happiness. And it makes me smile and at least for the rest of today, remember what living is really all about…

She’s leaving home …

Saturday 26 September 2020

On a bright Autumnal Saturday morning, Windsor’s suspension creaking under the weight of suitcases, boxes, pots and pans; two teens sandwiched into the back seat with pillows and duvets; my Eldest on navigation and me at the wheel, we set off to Newcastle Uni. My first child is leaving home…

It’s a happy journey. The two backseaters plug themselves into their phones whilst my Eldest and I, chat and laugh and harmonise along to songs on the radio. We arrive in good time and park in the city centre for a spot of lunch.

As is now the case anywhere in the UK, there are quite a few changes to city life. I am initially stunned by the contrast to the bustling Newcastle we last saw on a January interview; now transformed into a silent shopping centre where face-masked locals obediently snake along in a one-way system, socially distance on escalators and wordlessly queue outside busier shops. It’s a relief to get back onto the open streets, where following some track-and-trace scanning and hand sanitising we find ourselves safely in a Yo! Sushi booth with dishes whirling round to our table.

All three teens are completely at home in the new world of phone menus and remote ordering. I hand over my credit card and let them take over! Sitting back, with a smile, watching the trio laughing and joking their way through the dishes, I realise that I could be dropping any one of them off for a new life today. They all look so capable, so self assured and so ready to take their place in the world. The panic I thought I’d feel; that these fun, family times are coming to an end dissolves into pride. I just feel proud of the three, incredible young people I have raised and proud of our strong bond as a family. Things will be different from now on, but in all the ways that matter, we will be as close as ever.

After lunch we find the student accommodation. My Eldest hops out to pick up her keys and we see her chatting to other new students … many times, as the rest of us complete circuit after circuit in a fruitless attempt to locate a parking spot. As the car park attendant waves us by onto lap 4, I decide enough is quite enough and manoevre Windsor into, what is clearly an illegal spot, right outside the entrance to my daughter’s block. After that, we unload, smile at flat-mates and their parents, drive off to do a bit of food shopping and giggle as we return to find cones now sternly blocking our drop-off spot. As the sun starts to fade from the day, Small Boy and I leave the girls together unpacking for a last bit of sister-time before it is time to go.

Yes, there are tears at this point. And as we hit the motorway south with only 3 of us in the car, my heart begins to ache. I have so much confidence in my Eldest child. She is brilliant, she is unstoppable, she will make a great contribution to the world. I know that Newcastle Uni are really lucky to have her. But she is also one of my best friends, she has brightened my day for the last 18 years, and I am just really going to miss her …

A Level Results Day

Thursday 13 August 2020

It is A level results day. I haven’t slept. I am up at six. Pacing the house. Hoovering for no reason. Depositing half-drunk cups of coffee in several rooms. By the time my eldest disappears to her room, to view the 8 am grades, I am on the edge of bursting into tears.  Everything goes very, very quiet …until,

Mum, can you come here please?”

And then I do cry. My girl has the grades she needs. After four years of unbelievable slog, barriers and hurdles one of my children is off to Medical School. It is so fantastic. It is almost impossible to take in.

2020 will be marked in educational annals as the Covid exam year; when exams were cancelled and pupils were given calculated grades. It has caused a national uproar, centred on the disparity between the standardisation of state and private school results. I expect the chapters of this year’s grade awards still have further pages to turn. But as the story of our marathon to Medical School reaches its end, I can say with some surety that if you want to experience first-hand the battle to break into an elite circle from the outside and even just to be allowed your entitlement to ambition, tell the world that you want to become a doctor!

Even though it has been daunting, and at times demoralising, I don’t want to put anyone off.  I would do it all again in a breath. For this single mum, even without the final outcome, the whole experience has been an unforgettable rite of passage. Transporting me from life as a parent of a child, to becoming a parent of an amazing young adult, unique person and great friend. We have shared so much, and this includes laughter and fun as well as the tears and moments of despair. I have learned far more from my inspirational girl than I might ever hope to have taught her. It really has been some of the best of times…

Re-living the Journey – just for the record!

Initial reactions

Mid way through Year 10, my eldest took herself to an event for ‘Young Doctors‘ at Manchester Uni. She skipped back through the door, waving a sutured banana, utterly sold on the idea of a career in medicine. By the December of Year 11, her drive and determination were beginning to take my breath away and I started to tell others of her plans. My niece was super excited and bombarded us with helpful sites and advice. Everyone else, clearly thought we were deluded,

“Medicine! Isn’t that incredibly difficult?”

“Don’t you need really high grades?

That’s so hard to get into! Can she really stand out?”

The message seemed clear; that Medical school was ‘not for people like us‘. And to my shame, as I confess in my first ever blog post, I retreated into this world of self doubt. Fortunately, teachers, teachers at a local comprehensive school, did not. They recognised the talents and efforts of my unstoppable girl, and rewarded her with praise, encouragement and a ‘smash the glass-ceiling‘ attitude. In August 2018, she collected a stellar set of GCSE results, moved onto sixth form college and joined the ‘Medical Group’.

Work experience and volunteering

The group told us of the hoops we has to jump through in terms of volunteering and work experience. When it came to finding a way through them however, we were on our own. My daughter hit the phones and found herself a volunteering post at a local care home. But clinical ‘work experience ‘…

I set out with a naive belief in the existence of a  ‘system’ to support us. We applied to countless hospital trusts and council care home. Some rejected us. Others ignored us. Many said ‘no‘ to any clinical care or patient contact. It was dead end after dead end.

Now I believe in a comprehensive system. I work in the school comprehensive system. But I don’t believe any such a system exists for medical school applicants. And if the system fails, like any mum I am going to fight for my child. In January 2019, in a growing panic about work experience, I abandoned official channels and fell upon the mercy of a doctor friend. How fantastic was this friend? I honestly cannot do them justice in words. They sorted out a placement. They provided great work experience. And they did something even more valuable than that; they invested time, care and interest. They were there, long after the work experience week, to meet up, talk through and help understand what being a doctor meant; why being a doctor was so important.

In the meantime, my daughter moved onto the UKCAT.

UKCAT

Despite a national shortage of doctors, great GCSEs, high A Level predictions, work experience and a year of volunteering are not enough for our UK medical courses. Oh no! You also have to take a medical aptitude test, prior to University application. For us it was the UKCAT.

My eldest, prepped for it herself with a bank of online questions. She ground through  practice papers on our holiday in Spain, upon our return, at her dad’s … essentially in any space she could find. The tests were gruesomely tough. But so is my girl! She fought through to emerge with flying colours. Ranked in the top 3% of entrants, she was now free to apply to the UKCAT University of her choice. Her personal statement penned, we crossed our fingers and waited for an interview.

The Interview

Without doubt, for us this was the worst experience. Scheduled in December, the exhausted end of term weeks and always an overnight stay away,  they proved a mammoth ordeal. It was to our genuine amazement that, four gruelling interview ordeals later, surviving sets of 5 or 7 stations of: group tasks, role play, ethical discussions, communication challenges and an interrogation of her personal qualities she finally got 3 offers.

Which just left the small matter of some pretty high A level grades …

A Levels 2020

We could actually see the finishing line. February mocks went really well. Parents Evening was a dream. Revision schedules were on the wall. Exam dates were on the calendar. But who could have foreseen that the curve ball of all curveballs that was heading our way? Covid 19!

Schools closed, exams cancelled. Teachers to predict and rank. Awarding bodies to churn it all through statistical machinations. And a generation of Year 13 students, exiled to wait 5 long months, now powerless to influence the outcome, to learn their fate…

We were back in the hands of teachers and have them to thank for their assessments, tracking and judgements. For their trust in a talent nurtured by interest, hard work and sheer grit. A level grades emerged from the calculations, not quite as high as predicted, but more than enough.

At last, the next stage beckons …

The music centre bill..

Saturday 18 July 2020

It drops through the door and sits on the mat; the Music Centre Bill for Autumn term 2020. I scoop it up with the rest of the mail and head to the kitchen, planning to read it over a morning cuppa. But I don’t. Instead I sit, with my tea and just stare and stare at the envelope, gripped by a dread of opening it at all ….

Is it the finances? No, that’s not it. I’ll be honest, getting an invoice is never the greatest moment of the day, but this one will have a due date of September 2020 and I have two more pay cheques before then. Plenty of time to get those funds together.

What then? It is this. Into my July morning comes the realisation that, for the first time since I can remember, there will only be two names, not three on the letter. The chances are that my eldest will not be joining the other two back at Youth Orchestra in the Fall, because she will be heading off to a new life at University. It is a sudden sign that we are rapidly approaching the end of an era. And I am blind-sided.

Of course a University place is not guaranteed for my girl this October. (Who knows what grades will emerge for her from the national machine currently calculating and balancing covid-estimates for all our examination hopefuls this Summer.) But if not this year, then next. And if not to Higher Education, then ultimately to some independent form of adult life. The time for the four of us and family life, with all our glorious traditions, daily routines, crazy plans and fitting comfortably together … it’s over in the very near future.

I’ve known it was coming, but this letter suddenly makes it feel very real and makes my heart feel very sad. I flick the kettle on again and push the letter aside for a moment. One more cuppa and then I’ll face it ….

Did it…

Friday 31 January 2020

Another January draws to a close, but this is no ordinary opening slog of dark and dreary endurance. It is one where, just as I pause to proudly cheer “I did it!”, I find myself bowled with joy because my eldest really and truly ‘did it’! She went and got herself that University offer…

I did Dry January! Today I reach the end of a 31 day alcohol-holiday for my body. Tough times at first – bottles of white wine gleaming like exotic jewels of temptation on the supermarket shelves. Turning the key in the lock after a late night rehearsal but not relaxing with a glass of whisky. It all felt very dull. Was it worth the perseverance? Absolutely! From the middle of the month, I rediscovered a natural tiredness and slept like a baby most nights. And today, as I prepare to wave goodbye to total abstinence, my skin is clear, my stomach settled and water, how I crave H20, seems far more refreshing than … anything. Above all however, I have fallen a little bit in love with my clearer, fresher mind. This old brain won’t ever revive the glorious romps of my 20s, I know that, but without doubt, it is sharper and speedier this month than in the previous 5 years. Alcohol, yes it was difficult to give up, but for me, giving up fog-free thinking, now that will be impossible. I think my drinking habits are reformed for ever. “Eek!

Today also marks ‘done it’ for my course of antibiotics. My finger still looks pretty awful but it is usable again. I can write once more. I can turn on light switches. I can rummage for keys on my bag. And I can at long last, return to playing my oboe – hip hip hooray! But it doesn’t quite end there. This is Friday, which means that I ‘do’ a run! It’s a gruelling and windswept ordeal tonight, but my run buddy drags me around the muddy course. By the end, my mood is high; and it is about to go stratospheric.

I am just collapsing into my car when the mobile rings, it’s my eldest,

“Mum, Nottingham have given me an offer!!!”

Joy, pride, relief, incredulity, all these emotions and more flood the system. So much hard work, so much stress, so much waiting, but suddenly it all seems worth it. My girl, against all the odds, has ‘done it’, and she edges ever closer to her medicine dreams. I am completely over the moon. Forget your fizz and cocktails; this feels like a high that will never end.

So I bid you a fond farewell January 2020 … possibly the best January ever!!