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 – now 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…