‘Character makes the biggest difference, not exam results’ – HMC chair

Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate Grammar School and chair of HMC, says teachers may not admit it, but our lives aren’t defined by grades

It’s here again. Brexit or no Brexit, families all over the country are entering that strange period of purdah as their teenagers await the result of their GCSEs and A-levels.

The vast majority of candidates – if they were well prepared – will have withstood the ordeal pretty well. It’s the parents I worry about.

What should they tell their offspring? That these events are the most important events of their educational careers and that without the requisite number of As and A*s all will be lost. Entry to a ‘good’ university? No chance. A fulfilling career in a fulfilling, well-paid career? Not a hope.

Stop!

With the current national crisis – for that is what it surely is – in mental health among children and young people, there’s more reason than ever to acquire some perspective on the true value of exams. And parents can do something really important for their children by having an honest discussion with them about it.

Tell them that success and failure are both mere imposters and certainly do not define them. Young people are far more than their exam results.

Your children’s teachers may not admit it, but our lives are not defined by grades.

At an independent school it is far easier to surf over politically-motivated targets and focus on helping children to be, and do, their best, even when these types of outcomes can’t be put in a spreadsheet

The sight of utterly exhausted London Marathon competitors staggering over the finishing line, propelled by their own determination and the loving support of friends and families, tells us far more about the quality of the individuals than their academic achievement.

And I’ve yet to hear anyone making searching enquiries about Sir Mo’s GCSE grades.

Of course, exams are important, and as head of a school where students’ achievements are likely to put them at the top of those blessed league tables with which the education sector is increasingly obsessed, you may say I can afford to underplay their importance.

Exams are an efficient way to test retained knowledge, but they do not measure crucial things like the quality of friendships, preparedness for adult life, team-working skills, or leadership qualities.

I am head of an independent school and have been head of an outstanding state grammar school and of an outstanding comprehensive school, so I know how our independent schools differ from those in the state sector.

At an independent school it is far easier to surf over politically-motivated targets and focus on helping children to be, and do, their best, even when these types of outcomes can’t be put in a spreadsheet.

The pursuit of excellence transcends Ofsted or league tables. There should be as many ways to succeed as there are children in the school.

Grades matter, of course, and in life beyond school they can open doors of opportunity. But you need to have fine qualities of character to become a happy and successful adult. It is your character that will make the biggest difference.

What’s the best thing to do for your child on exam results day?

Tell them: ‘You’ve worked hard. You’ve done the best you can. But the most important thing in life isn’t your grades but your qualities as a human being. They are what will determine what lies ahead.’


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