If you’re the parent of a young person who received their A-level results yesterday, then you may well have experienced a few nervous moments this week. You’re probably glad the nail-biting wait is over so that life can regain some kind of normality.
Certainly after more than 25 years of being at results days in school, I am always struck that the people pacing in greatest agitation around reception or skulking anxiously in the car park aren’t the students. It’s their parents and carers.
These results matter. They mark a kind of rite of passage: the end of the formal school- or college-based education, and the transition either into work or to a whole new phase of independent learning – university.
Parents know how much stress the pressure of school and home expectations generates. Through modules and mock exams and candle-burning revision parents will have shared – and probably wished they could escape from – the traumas, the tension, the plummeting self-confidence after a bad paper, and all the other hallmarks of preparing for exams.
That’s not to say that students don’t lose sleep over what their results might be like, too. Of course they do. They have been told from the earliest tests back in primary school that the results are important. They are, after all, the most tested generation ever, subjected to a giddying and frantic number of examination hoops to jump through.
All of them will have approached the moment of receiving their final results yesterday with inevitable trepidation. And that’s why it’s so galling, so disgraceful, when from one year to the next someone who should know better makes snide comments about falling standards or exams getting easier.
It started again this week.
There have been headlines about school leavers lacking the right skills, about some schools abandoning A-levels because of the Government’s changes to them, and then some pretty ill-informed comments about which university courses are easier than which.
We know that in our culture there’s often a ‘glass-half-empty’ outlook. We can often be quick to criticise and slow to praise. We know that traditionally the distinctive British temperament is to avoid those rah-rah outbursts of spontaneous joy.
Instead, our upper lips are supposed to remain stiff and unsmiling.
But the achievement of young people at A-level in this country remains remarkable. And the very week that they are nerve-wrackingly receiving their results is not the time to put the boot in either to qualifications or courses.
After all, we know that many countries look with envy at a qualification that combines both depth and breadth. It is still seen by most employers and educationists as ‘the gold standard’.
We should also recognise that A-levels were originally designed for a tiny proportion of the population. Back in the bleak hinterland of my Staffordshire adolescence in the late 1970s, you either chose at 16 to go into the sixth form or you looked for a job.
A-levels were for an academic minority and university was the preserve of a privileged few.
Then our society, rightly, realised that at a time of increasing global competition, when many of the old jobs in farming and factories were being taken over by machines or outsourced overseas, and in an age when most people would live longer, it was a criminal waste of talent for so few young people to remain in education beyond 16.
That’s why we should celebrate A-levels, and why we should loudly applaud the achievements of the young people who received their results yesterday.
Whether they are now heading to university or college, or moving into employment, they will have gained a huge amount from exploring subjects in depth and learning more about that most essential skill for life – learning how to learn.
We should also raise a glass to their proud parents who – whatever some newspapers and politicians might say – see all the hard work and anguish that goes into A-level achievement. Well done to you all.