GCSE Results – ‘You are not alone’

With the approach of GCSE results, every year, a sort of atavistic nausea grows in my stomach, catching me during a moment on the beach, in a nightmare or whilst playing with my kids.

It harks back to a particular Wednesday night, the evening before the results were due to come out, when my headteacher phoned to declare a state of crisis regarding the languages results. Hours, days and weeks of soul-searching and wailing followed what were, frankly, a disastrous and unexpected set of GCSE results. The department bared its soul for examination, we fell on our swords, admitted defeat and effectively started again from scratch. Needless to say, we came out far stronger for it – and there have been many triumphs (and of course disappointments) since.

A couple of years later, I went running to my line manager during one of those stomach-lurching moments, somewhere around the end of June (the point of no return, where there’s Nothing You Can Do), in a blind panic that the same thing might happen again (following an improvement the previous year). His words, that kind, wise and wonderful man whom I still miss hugely, have stayed with me:

‘You are not alone,’ he said.

In my research for my book on teacher wellbeing, recruitment and retention, there is a striking theme of teachers crumbling under the weight of responsibility for their subject, with the huge changes in the curriculum and the pressure of accountability Рnow linked to pay, but more emotively, I believe, to a sense of professional efficacy and self-esteem. Obviously, this is huge, the higher up the management ladder you climb, with the Headteacher/football manager  (the career-expectancy) without the pay analogy seeming more striking than ever during this period.

But actually, it’s teachers of the smaller and non-core subjects who seemed to be most acutely affected. Subjects which have to continually fight for their credibility and for numbers at GCSE and A Level – or indeed, to exist at all, in this climate of financial strain for schools. Subjects which are made up of small departments of two or even one member – who are pretty much isolated in learning a new set of assessment criteria and attempting to tailor a new curriculum in order to get the best deal for their students.

Having moved from MFL to English – where, in the latter, I frequently found myself reverting to tiger-mother to fight for my subject’s status and credibility – the difference between core and non-core has been striking.

With English, there has been such a huge amount of support – numerous staff members across the school to support, offer expertise, and take the whole year group off timetable whenever required or requested… I’m not saying this isn’t justified – these subjects are so important, not just for schools, but for students. But it is different. Whether in triumph or disappointment, I am literally aware of being a relatively small part of a far bigger team.

For those not yet in the know, tonight may be a restless night. Leaders and core-subject teachers, spare a thought for subjects that don’t have such a high profile – disappointment and triumph are just as intense, if not more so, for these teachers. And all, teachers, especially he middle leaders to whom I can relate so well, it is ultimately true – you are not alone. And however disappointing or brilliant your results – or, most likely, a mixture of the two – there will be schools experiencing something similar and teachers feeling the same as you do.

This is my 20th year of this – with time and experience does come a sense of perspective (which nevertheless never quite counters the nausea). Things can’t continually get better and better and better. Contrary to Gove’s expectations, schools can’t ALL be ‘above average’. Performance Related Pay threatens to belie this, but all our efforts are collective – they have to be. Community is at the very heart of what we do.

There are two groups of people for whom I retain genuine and acute feeling today – headteachers, for whom the pressure must be enormous, because I know how much they want the best for their students and their teams. And the students themselves. Who ultimately, in a sense, ARE alone with the results they’ll still be listing on forms when they’re as old as I am, and older. In every school basking in triumph, there will be students who will experience acute disappointment tomorrow. Amidst every apparently catastrophic set of results, there will be bright sparks and students who have beaten the odds.

So however important these results are to you, your team, your performance management, or your career prospects, there will be plenty of time for robust analysis, champagne or quiet pride. Tomorrow, if you are in school, let it be about the students – do what you do best. Guide them calmly through crises, take them aside to tell them you always knew they could do it and how every very proud you are, give them space to retreat into corners with unopened envelopes or howl in pack.

But whatever you do, make sure that they truly feel and know that they are not alone.

Edit: How could I possibly have forgotten the parents! The blissful ignorance of having primary age children. A shout out to parents of teenagers receiving their results tomorrow. And a whole new lurch as I realise that in 6 years, I will be sitting where you are…

 

What it means to switch off

‘Shall I move back into the shade or get in the water?’

‘Boeuf bourguignon or roast chicken?’

‘Who’s got the bite cream?’

‘Campari or Champagne?’

‘Lunch first or sandwiches on the beach?’

‘Families in cars or shall we let the children swap?’

‘Who stole my towel?’

‘Who peed in the child’s suitcase?’

 

With the exception of approximately three hours, in which I cracked open the laptop and did some light work, these have been as complex and as stressful as my dilemmas have been over the past two weeks.

The holiday wasn’t quite as perfect as it could have been. Rio demanded my journalist husband’s presence, so he couldn’t be there, and we missed him hugely, especially when cackling over card games, playing tickling games with the girls, changing the rules of pool and dithering over moules frites.

For some people, a house full of between 6 and 9 children (families came and went; we didn’t dispose of the annoying ones…) may not appear an ideal holiday, but we relish it, and this was our seventh year of the same main people in a new location. My mind boggles at quite how we managed it when they were all under 4 (the nappy bill was huge and at least 3 had to be held at all times, with the others requiring constant vigilance). But the kids are older now. And whilst electronic devices are still present and the cause of countless spats, they also play imaginary games of mermaids and wolves and do spontaneous clothing swaps in between driving us all mad with their losses of shoes and goggles. Average time to leave the house: ca 2 hours.

I actually had intended to do a bit more work than I actually did. (The cry of teachers everywhere?) I had intentions of spending mornings in quiet rooms with my laptop before relaxing for the afternoon. But I blinked and realised I’d spent a whole three days not once thinking about teachers or teaching. I’d cackled so hard, my stomach hurt, feasted shamelessly on amazing French food, spent tons of time lost in cuddles and strops with my daughters, and lost repeatedly and spectacularly at cards… but I hadn’t thought about work. Even the confirmation of my doctorate award, though celebrated by my friends, was marginally less important than the identification of the latest pair of pants discarded by the pool.

So I allowed ¬†myself to drift, and before I’d blinked, another week had passed. I managed to write a piece I’d promised and read a fantastic book I’d said I’d review, but I approached these with a new energy. I have played the fool, been the clumsy one, eaten FAR too many croissants and been involved in too many inappropriate jokes to share here. I have shepherded small people through ice-cream orders (more traumatic than you may imagine), played a losing battle against mosquitoes and smugly basked as the children yelled ‘Messi!’ (yes, I have only today realised that the footballer and the word for ‘thank you’ are synonymous for most of them).

I have briefly stropped – at the stink of the plumbing and the inability of children to flush a toilet – at my terminal loathing of all supermarkets – at the French militant insistence on what is appropriate ‘eating time’ and what is not.

But mainly, I have cackled. So hard, that there have been tears. I have tried to fit my croissant-filled body through gaps that were too small, tried (and failed) to leap into a disturbingly vulva-shaped inflatable pink sofa-thing, sent table tennis balls flying in the most inept manner, consoled my petit-garcon tomboy daughter as her cap flew off the Ferris wheel, never to be seen again. And tried, and failed, to establish who peed on the clothes of my eldest.

And, having arrived home, I feel thoroughly, properly refreshed – for possibly the first time in years. And, whilst I know the croissants and local Champagne have taken their toll on my waistline and am still scratching at pesky mosquito bites, I feel better. So much better. And, as ever, lucky – to have such good fortune and good people and the freedom and resources to drop it all for a bit. And as if my edges have been somehow defined a little more clearly, and as if I have the space and permission to be proud of what I’ve achieved and the space and permission to be optimistic – very optimistic – about the challenging journey ahead. All with a whole ten days of holiday to go.

I hope you have also managed to have a break – god knows, we deserve one. Happy Summer to you all.

 

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