Grade expectations

Posted by Ian
I have very clear memories of receiving my GCSE results.
It was a deceptively calm and balmy summer day, the first time most of us had seen each other since school broke up almost two months previously. There was a mood of weird, misplaced excitement in the air, born from that sensation of being at school but not in school, almost as if we were turning up for a party or a picnic rather than to receive scraps of paper upon which lay information that would supposedly determine our future.
We had to gather outside a side entrance to one of our assembly halls at a strict hour, determined by our surname. Everybody from G-M, I remember, had to make sure they were ready and waiting at 12pm or else, it was implied, we might miss the chance of getting our results at all and have to wait an extra 24 hours for them to arrive in the post.
This was, of course, out of the question; we needed to know those grades as soon as possible, and rued the fact we had the misfortune to be blessed with families who didn’t boast surnames from earlier in the alphabet. We met some of their offspring coming out as we were going in, and their faces were a sober reminder that this most definitely wasn’t some whimsical out-of-hours escapade, but a potentially highly explosive and hugely emotional experience.
Several months earlier, before sitting the exams, our headteacher had solemnly informed us all that what we were about to go through was "the most important period in your life". He was to say precisely the same thing two years later when a somewhat smaller group of us were about to sit our A levels. Indeed, I remember hearing virtually the same instruction/promise/threat a lot later at university, and also a lot earlier in primary school, and at every single point in my life when facing a particular taxing test or enervating exam.
At that precise point in time, on that hazy morning in late August, his words were the last thing we wanted to hear ringing through our ears. Thoughts were either focused on the future – what my grades will allow me to go on to do – or the past – if only I’d tried harder in that subject, if only I’d made a point of doing an extra week’s revision. In truth, his sentiments had rung kind of hollow the moment he’d uttered them. We’d already made up our our minds as to how important our GCSEs were to us. We didn’t need anybody else coming along and telling us what to think.
Anyway, once we’d got inside, mayhem ensued. The place was a bearpit. There was so much noise it was hard to distinguish the tears from the cheers, which was probably just as well. It was all very mechanised, with no time for loitering. We were passed quickly from one table to another, collecting our respective results for all the various subjects, ending up tumbling through the door at the other end of the hall clutching a fist of papers and doing our best to either look foolishly confident or confidently foolish.
Then, suddenly, nobody knew what to do. A lot of people stood about, unsure whether to go straight back home, to hang around, to wait for their mates, or just run off as far away from the premises as possible. There were no outbursts of celebration, no spectacular breakdowns. It was all over.
Eventually folk started to drift away. Nobody was taking photos, nobody was on their phone – this was long before mobiles were around – and nobody was punching the air like they’d just won the lottery. Largely because the lottery wasn’t even around then.
What there was, however, was a feeling of accomplishment, of something having been completed, of a chapter closing in all our lives, and – for good or ill – of things having to move on. People were quietly relieved at having got the whole thing out of the way, but both excited and apprehensive at what was coming next.
And nobody, but nobody, was convinced that what we’d just been through was in any way easy, or a laugh, or a cinch compared to what our older brothers and sisters had suffered a year or so earlier. And later, when we got home and switched on the TV or radio, or picked up a newspaper, nobody was claiming that what the entire nation of 16-year-olds had just done was in any way a joke, or reflected badly on our parents, or ill-prepared us for the world of work.
That was 14 years ago. Personally I doubt the people who got their results today, and have just been through several months of hell, share the sentiments of those who are now quick to claim GCSEs are virtually tantamount to a walk in an especially child-friendly park. Yet an argument is raging, and it’s one we made the lead feature on the homepage this morning.
I can’t help feeling it’s not just the wrong time (kicking people when they’re justifiably high or regrettably low), but also the wrong argument. Knocking achievement, of whatever kind, is surely misplaced. Knocking the system – now that’s a different matter. 
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