Here we are again then – perched at the end of another examination results season. As the Bury Free Press headline declared: ‘Top marks for Bury St Edmunds schools’.
With A-levels last week and GCSEs yesterday, students across the UK will be finding themselves somewhere on a scale of emotions that runs from delighted through contented into disappointed and occasionally despondent.
Across schools in our patch of Suffolk, hundreds of young people have achieved impressive results. The pages of newspapers and Facebook duly overflowed with images of them smiling, punching the air, hugging each other, or jumping in the air for photogenic joy.
This September will mark thirty years since I started my career in teaching. The five schools I’ve worked in have always had one common feature – large Sixth Forms. This was one of the few ‘must-have’ requirements I put on my wishlist when applying for any job.
It’s not that I enjoy teaching older students more than younger ones. These days, I’m rightly expected to teach whoever our Head of English tells me to. But I’m committed to schools with sixth form students because of the way they can enrich the culture and provide visible role-models to younger students who might otherwise believe all they hear about 17- and 18-year olds from lurid soap operas or negative news stories.
Nowhere is my pride in working with sixth form students more tangible than on A-level results day. To students themselves, the grades they get at this stage of their lives matter a great deal. Their results are the culmination of several years of study. They open doors to employment or university. For many students, this is the stepping stone to a life away from home, a first move towards living as an independent person, the beginning of forging a new life with new friends, colleagues and experiences.
It’s as exciting as it is initially daunting.
That’s why students, their parents, and most definitely their teachers feel anxious as the results season looms. And me – gnarled veteran of so many results days – I found last week’s as nerve-racking as ever.
The news this year was awash with various scare-stories. There were reports that exam papers wouldn’t be marked in time, stories that teachers’ estimated grades across the country were often wrong and rumours that securing a university place this year would be far harder than in the past.
All of these tales left a lot of people feeling spooked in the long-drawn-out run-up to results day. But as it turned out the doom-mongering was mostly unfounded, leaving those of us who work in schools to share the joy, give advice where necessary, and then wave farewell to students as they head into new lives beyond school.
This is the most satisfying part of the job we do. One of our students – Jess – has had her heart set on becoming a surgeon when she joined us from middle school aged 13. Last week, five years on, she got her place at Oxford University to study medicine. Like so many other students, she will be the first member of her family to head to university.
That’s satisfying not because university is right for everyone. But there is something special in schools which neither select students by ability nor parental income to see those who wish to go to top universities gaining the grades that open the doors to let them do so.
None of it, of course, happens by accident. So in congratulating the students of West Suffolk, let’s hear it also for their teachers. Some have been at the sharp end currently teaching A-levels and GCSEs. But we also owe it to teachers in primary and middle schools who have played their part in establishing in students the skills, knowledge, confidence and resilience to do well.
This year’s great results are a testament to great teachers.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds