As with many independent schools this summer, we enjoyed fantastic GCSE results and, despite the uncertainty many of us felt about the numerical grading system, we were overwhelmed by the amount of grade 9s achieved by our students – the highest grade that can be achieved at GCSE level and, statistically, round about the top 4% of results.
We all know that recent, significant changes to the GCSE system have been made. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, summarises that the “bar has deliberately been set at a higher level” as a result of changes initiated by the former education secretary Michael Gove. “The new exams are harder, contain more content and involve sitting more papers,” Barton said.
However, he went on to say: “We are worried about the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of young people caused by these reforms and it is our view that such a substantial set of changes as this should have been introduced in a more managed and considered manner. It is to the credit of schools that they have responded to this situation by providing their students with extensive pastoral support in order to alleviate stress and anxiety.” Furthermore, Caroline Jordan, a fellow GSA Head and ex-president of the GSA, was quoted in The Telegraph as saying: “The new grading scale will place more pressure on pupils with a tendency towards perfectionism.”
Indeed, there was and is a real emphasis in my school that we just do not talk about the grade 9. In fact, at our ‘Welcome to Year 10’ evening, we very publicly said that, yes, we have high expectations of our girls but our expectations are focused on the grades 8–4. We told parents that there was no focus on the grade 9; indeed, we have to support our girls in the avoidance of perfection that may be linked to girls striving for that highest grade. We want our girls to succeed and to achieve their potential, of course. However, we want their aims to be pragmatic. What we do not want is to focus on something that will apply more pressure to a generation of young people who already have to navigate the challenges associated with being a teenager in the 21st century. I want my Year 10 and 11 girls to be happy and to get to their exams, not to collapse before them!
So, has this policy worked? If we focus on grades 8–4, does this reduce the pressure on our students? While preparing for this article, I spoke to the girls themselves and I am really glad that I did. I spoke to several current Year 12 girls who took GCSE examinations in June 2018 which were – in the most part – awarded with numerical grades. For them, they really appreciated the ‘8–4’ message. This message was not only reinforced by school but by teachers too who, they felt, did not even mention the grade and certainly did not award the grade in tests and examinations. The girls told me that they felt that teachers made them feel that “the grade 9 wasn’t even there”. However, there was, of course, a further reason to explain this. After all – with the exception of teachers of maths and English – teachers just did not have the experience to really know what a grade 9 looked like. The evident lack of sample materials meant that teachers were, understandably, not totally confident in their awarding of grade 9s to pieces of work and, therefore, were in a practical situation where they could support this whole school approach.
Despite this, the current Year 12 girls with whom I spoke, still talked about how attaining a grade 8 in some subjects – particularly those in which they felt confident – left them with the feeling that they “could have done better”. They talked of feeling “cheated” when they did not achieve that ‘top’ grade. And, I am sure that this is the feeling of many of our high-achieving students.
Furthermore, the situation is now far more difficult for the current Year 11 cohort. Despite the very clear message to my students that they should not be deliberately aiming for that perfect grade 9, they now see what is around them. They see the national picture where students are achieving that grade, they have girls in the year above them who have achieved stunning results with several achieving grade 9s across the board. This has, from my perspective as Head, ramped up the pressure on those approaching their GCSEs this academic year. They know that those grade 9s can be achieved and they feel a pressure to achieve them.
When I talked to them further about their views about the current system, they spoke with eloquence about their fears that employers and universities would not fully appreciate the difficulties associated with the new specifications. They asked why examination boards could not award percentages rather than grades so that it was clear to universities and employers how successful they were, rather than being awarded grades. It is difficult to argue with their concerns.
And all of this does leave me in a quandary. We are making a very deliberate effort to encourage our students to avoid the dangers of perfectionism, in all areas of their lives. Our clear message in not talking about grade 9 is another deliberate effort to reflect this strategy in the academic lives of the girls. But they feel the pressure regardless. When I asked them where they felt this pressure comes from, they shrug. “Michael Gove” was one response! However, it was certainly a pressure they were absorbing and one which we need to address – both in our message to students but also to parents. Rather like social media, the reality of the pressure associated with the introduction of this grading system is inevitable. What we do need to do is to ensure, somehow, that the students don’t feel that they have failed if they do not achieve that highest grade.
In May 2018, a YouGov survey (believed to be the largest and most comprehensive stress survey ever carried out across the UK) noted that 60% of young people have felt so stressed by pressure to succeed that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Fifty-seven per cent of young people have felt so stressed because of the fear of making mistakes that they have also felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. I can’t help but worry that the introduction of this system will only exacerbate the problem for our students who already place such high expectations upon themselves.
I am really glad that I had this conversation with my students and these will continue while I monitor the impact of these changes.
We need to work with our students and adopt those strategies which may enable them to achieve fantastic results, but with a sense of real pride and contentment that they have achieved their potential – whether that is with a clean sweep of 9s or not. It is imperative that we take this new challenge to our students very seriously if we are going to guide them successfully through the pressures of their young lives.