Keep calm: there’s more to life than exam grades

My thoughts went out to all the students who picked up their exam results last month. For some young people results day will provide a happy end to months of hard work, but others won’t have received the grades they had hoped for.

I strongly believe that we risk losing our sense of perspective on exam results; magnifying their importance out of all proportion. We must keep our perspective in balance and remember that there’s more to life than exam grades.

In my opinion, exams are simply one stepping stone on our children’s pathway to adult independence. There are other experiences, skills and qualities which are equally important to help our children and young people reach their future potential.

The importance placed on exam results can make school, particularly during key stages 4 and 5, a stressful time for young people. The pressure to achieve high grades can make some young people seriously unwell. Many students who did not get the results they wanted will absorb this as affirmation that they aren’t good enough. They will lose self-belief, assume they’re unable to achieve and adopt a self-limiting fixed mindset towards their own abilities.

With over half of mental health problems starting by the age of 14, we have got to recognise the damaging effect exam pressure can have on young people’s lives.

Poor mental health can have a devastating impact on the lives of children and their families. So, I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement last month that more than 100,000 teenagers a year will be given mental health training via the National Citizen Service. The training is aimed at helping young people cope with the pressure of exams, raising awareness about mental health amongst young people and ensuring that they know how and where to access support if needed.

I’m sure this mental health support will be strongly taken up by young people; probably those who have positive relationships with their parents, carers and teachers who are capable of spotting the early signs and symptoms of mental health problems.

However, this level of parental support and guidance to access mental health services is not always available for those children who are most vulnerable. So, the young people most in need of mental health support can be the least likely to access it.

To address this dilemma we need good, properly funded and accessible mental health services, but we also need to keep exam results in perspective. We need to ensure young people and their future employers recognise and value the whole range of experiences, skills and abilities which unleash the potential of our young people.

As I highlighted in my ADCS Presidential speech, education needs to be more inclusive. We need to look at our education offer to our most vulnerable pupils. How might we and Ofsted require schools, all schools to be inclusive, inclusive of children with learning difficulties, special educational needs and disabilities and inclusive of those children who for a variety of reasons may not be the highest academic achievers?

As we know, not all children are academically gifted, but academia and grades are not everything! Employers equally value communication skills, grit and determination, resourcefulness, initiative, problem solving and team spirit.

Together we need to ensure that every child is offered an education that allows them to realise and build on all their strengths – not just their ability to pass exams.

For this reason I welcome HMCI Amanda Spielman’s announcement of an investigation into the curriculum. We’ve had years of continuous change to the structure of our schools and the qualifications for which our young people study. It’s time we reviewed whether the curriculum is fit for purpose, whether it’s going to equip our children and young people to thrive, not just survive, in the 21st century.

Here in Nottingham we will continue to work with schools and academies across the city to help them improve, and further support the Education Improvement Board with its 10-year plan for Nottingham. I’m proud that this year we have had a 3.2% increase in the number of our children in care achieving 5 A*-C grades in their GCSEs (or should I be saying 4+ now?). In my view this is real progress for our children and a step closer to an education system that is focused on inclusivity.

If you work with young people who have succeeded this summer, then I offer my heartfelt congratulations and I wish them every success with their next steps. But if you’re working with young people who have not done as well as they had hoped and are at risk of becoming disaffected, then tell them: “exam results are not the only measure of success”.

It is important to stay focused, school and exams are important, but not at the cost of your mental health. Keep them in perspective.


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