‘Destiny or choice’: Exam results and navigating a global setback

One piece of advice that really stayed with me around exam time when I was at school was from my Year 11 Form Tutor. Bearing in mind I attended a technically ‘failing’ school and I imagine results day didn’t reflect a sterling set of results, my form tutor explained that our grades (and in particular five A-Cs at GCSE) were ‘stepping stones’ and simply something we needed to get in order to open the next set (or a greater range) of doors. This was said to calm us and to focus our efforts on achieving the minimum requirements to set us up for the next step, which was A-Levels, but for me it also helped to take the pressure off and really focus on what needed to be done, rather than falling into a pit of despair trying to figure out how to pass ten subjects.

I was never a high-flying student and was barely predicted to pass four GCSEs, primarily because I didn’t engage in school and I felt at the time that school (and teachers) never really tried to engage with me, and it was all a waste of time. Now I can’t compare my experience of attending a secondary school in Essex to attending a fee-paying international school, with the doors and opportunities afforded to students and the hope that it will offer a better and arguably more privileged life for them. Undoubtedly with such a financial investment comes the expectation that this will increase students’ chance of success in life (which I believe it really can do). However, with the ongoing debate and controversy surrounding this year’s A-Level results, and the biased algorithms that have not only disadvantaged a number of students around the world, but have also highlighted the systemic inequalities within the education system, the intention of this article is to perhaps attempt to frame this period in a more hopeful way for students (and teachers) emerging from the wake of this devastation, whilst recognising that August 2020 will remain a memorable period for students that have received their results for a long time to come. 

I’d like to start this discussion by acknowledging that the system of grading has sadly failed many students, and the sadness, despair and anger felt is completely founded and real. I can’t imagine what it is like to have worked towards something for years to then be denied the opportunity to show what you can do, or be awarded the grade that you deserve. It is akin to the Olympic athletes that were due to attend Tokyo 2020 being awarded medals in lieu of the competition based on their respective countries previous performances, without taking into account the athletes current form and track record of events and results coming into the Games.

What is now being experienced could be considered as the grieving of an ‘imagined future’ by students, teachers and parents. Much like when you go through a break-up of a serious relationship, much of the emotion attached to the break up is due to the loss of the ‘imagined future’ that you had invested in… the house you dreamed of having with your partner, the dreams you shared, the family you won’t have with that individual. With the downgrading of results potentially impacting on university places and choices, what students may be experiencing is the loss of the imagined university experience that they hoped they would have, and the future they predicted would unfold after that. Similarly, teachers (and parents) may also be experiencing the loss of the ‘imagined future’ that they had hoped for these young people. 

To draw on the sentiments of the Belgian Psychotherapist Esther Perel, in the context of romantic relationships she speaks to the idea that there is no single ‘soul mate’ that we are destined to be with, rather we could happily have fulfilling relationships and futures with a number of different partners, and that the partner we stay with is an active ‘choice’, and not a destiny. I find this concept quite a considered and liberating idea, and one that could be extended to many life situations – particularly the relationship we have with our future and our career. In this sense, there may be many different paths (or institutions/jobs) that can lead us to our desired goal of living a purposeful and fulfilling life.

As we all get older we encounter more and more people in our chosen professions that didn’t take linear paths to where they are now, and in my own experience I feel that this can often be a real strength, particularly when working with young people. 

I have heard and mentioned in a previous blog that the current pandemic could be considered as being a ‘global trauma’. Whilst I believe that there is some truth in this, I appreciate that ‘trauma’ is a highly emotive term that carries a lot of depth. As such perhaps it feels more apt to frame the pandemic as the ‘global setback’ especially when applying it to the context of working with students that are receiving their exam results. As a result of COVID-19, many students may change their future post-school plans in a variety of ways, whether it’s choosing to go to a university closer to home (perhaps staying in the students home country), delaying going to university, choosing a different university/university course, or choosing a completely online programme. 

Students are having to be more adaptable than ever.

An idea I would like to draw on here (whilst I appreciate it is taken out of its original context) is from the ‘Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road’ article by Collins, MacNamara and McCarthy (2016). This article serves to a follow up on misunderstandings associated with a ‘talent needs trauma’ perspective in sport. Rather this particular study sought to examine what factors associated with ‘trauma experiences’ (some sort of life or sport-related challenge) and whether or not these discriminated between high, medium and low achievers in sport (super champions, champions and almost). The study concluded that there was no evidence that major trauma was a necessary feature of athlete development at the highest level. Additionally there was no discrimination across the three categories of performers associated with the incidence of a life/non-sport trauma. As such, the authors concluded that their findings suggested that the differences in the level of achievement that the athletes included in the study were able to achieve related more towards what the ‘performers bring to the challenges than what they experience.’

I appreciate that drawing on research on elite sport performers isn’t necessarily a fair comparison to the wider population of young people finishing their A-Level exams, who encompass a range of different academic abilities. However what I think is interesting is the ideas related to the findings in this paper in the sense of how participants ‘conceptualized, thought about, and actioned their experiences’. In this sense the higher level performers appeared to display a more positive ‘learn from it’ proactive type approach to challenges they encountered. On the other hand, lower-level performers appeared to exhibit a predominantly ‘reactive’ approach to challenge. One factor that may have contributed to developing a more established ‘proactive’ approach was in part due to the performer experiencing a more facilitative, rather than directive, style of coaching and parenting. 

With this in mind, I would like to conclude this article by highlighting that in light of all the emotional turmoil caused by the recent A-Level and (I)GCSE results, perhaps we as educators working with young people can look to facilitate discussions and debriefs about what we can learn and take from this experience in all of its unfairness. What can students bring to this experience and also what can we (as people working in education) put in place to help students meet challenges proactively, and with the flexibility of mind to foresee that there may be many different pathways to get us to where we ultimately want and deserve to be. 

Just a reminder that you can access issue 1 of the WISEducation Newsletter here – WISEducation Issue 1

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