The school experience is a strange one for parents. Obviously, you understand what it entails, you were once a young student yourself, but it is hard to pinpoint and recall what was the most important aspect of that experience. And so, when judging what possible school you should send your children to, the decision-making process becomes a challenge. For some, the first order of call is to look at the average grades that any potential school achieves, for others it is how each school is graded by a respected governing body. All of these are perfectly sensible parameters by which you can choose a school, and while there may also be an emotional aspect to the decision you make, the decision will mostly come down to a singular base point, the grades that their students attain. And so, while the schooling system may have changed a great deal since the time that I was a student, the baseline priorities of a school do not seem to have changed at all, they are in the business of getting good grades.
My eldest daughter is currently sitting her GSCEs, this particular set of exams has always seemed to me to be the hardest. You are tested on an enormous spectrum of subjects and have to sit the exams for each of these subjects within a very condensed period of time, often sitting multiple subjects on the same day. While she is putting pressure on herself to do well, for me it is not the results she achieves in these exams but her attitude before and during the exams that matter most. This set of exams are the first genuine challenge that she has had to face as a young adult, it is a right of passage. She has been forced to take control of her revision schedule, her preparation for each exam, as well as how she chooses to deal with the stress during this time. It is a fantastic process for someone of her age to go through, and one that has seen her noticeably mature. Needless to say, I am very proud of how she has embraced this challenge, and while I hope she gets the grades she wants, these grades will not be the reason for my pride in her, instead, it is because of the manner in which she has tried her best and embraced this challenge. This is the true test, in my humble view, of her GCSEs, and in her father eyes she has passed with flying colors even before we receive the results.
This current viewpoint, however, is not one that I have always held. If you had asked me three years ago what my thoughts were about GCSEs, I would have been far more focused on the grades rather than the experience. And this change in view is mirrored in what I now think about the education system as a whole.
GCSEs are very important, they force teenagers to suddenly grow up and take personal responsibility while also giving them and their parents an indicator of their academic abilities and strengths. Sadly, this indicator is seen through the prism of success or failure, should a child not do well in these exams a sense of despair about their future will likely engulf the child and their parents. This is clearly ridiculous, the path to A Levels and University is one that suits some students, but it is clearly not one that suits all students. This obsession with University is something that has caused large swathes of students to innocently take on huge debts to undertake degrees. Degrees that will give them no edge in the jobs market.
This situation is now frankly a national disgrace. Outside of the traditional professions, where good grades and a degree are required as part of the overall path to eventually being employed, there are large swathes of professions that pay well, where the quality of work and attitude will count for more than the grades that you achieved at school.
A person's professional life has changed a great deal in the last 20 years, people tend to stay within a role for only 2 years and people are accepting of the fact that they will likely have to work for a very long time. As a result of these changes, the importance of finding a career that suits your personality and skill-set is enormously important and is an outcome that every parent should want for their child. For some children, it is clear that they will be suited to pursuing the academic path to professional success, but this is not arbitrary. For some children, they may be more suited to learning on the job and going straight into the workforce and for others, possibly an apprenticeship would suit best. An individuals lifetime earnings tend to be about their ability to do something well, finding that thing and dedicating time and energy to will ensure that you have a personally and professionally fulfilling life over the long term rather than flash-in-the pan success. Alas, far too much emphasis is placed on children achieving success through a narrow path of further education, the truth is there are an enormous number of paths that will take you to your desired professional destination.
As an employer myself, apart from some noticeable exceptions, I have found the achievement of a degree tends to reflect on the social class of the applicants background, rather than their educational ability. Far more important, in my view, is the quality of the person's character and their willingness to work hard.
Exams matter, they are a right of passage for young adults to become adults themselves, they give an indicator of the best path that a child should take in the years ahead to achieve professional success and happiness but they should not be viewed through the prism of a pass and fail. Like much in life, it is how you participate in the challenge itself and what lessons you learn from the challenge, rather than the end result that matters most. GCSEs are the start, but are very much not the end.