You might have heard about Marcus Hutchins who helped shut down the cyber-attack virus that threatened the NHS computer system this week. The detail seized upon by the press was that this young man had failed his GCSE IT when at school. This is part of what is becoming a sub-genre of the narrative around exams season, where details of famously successful people who failed their exams are published, seemingly with the aim of making anxious students feel better. Examples range from Jeremy Clarkson’s twitter boast last summer: ‘If your A level results aren’t joyous take comfort from the fact I got a C and two Us. And I have a Mercedes Benz’ to the revelation that Robbie Williams failed all his exams ‘really badly.’ And then there’s the ubiquitous – but untrue – tale of Einstein failing maths at school.
Any teacher will tell you that schools nowadays are acutely aware of the need to promote the message that achievement in exams is only one part of the skillset young people need to acquire if they are to prepare for success in the world of work and adulthood. Kevin Stannard, Director of Innovation and Learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust, makes the point compellingly in his TES article this week:
Nevertheless, for good or ill, we have a system of end-loaded public examinations in this country. Were I to ask any student currently swotting for, or sitting, GCSEs and A Levels if they felt these exams were ‘a big deal’ I’m fairly certain I know what the answer would be. There is a real danger that, by trying to reassure students – in simplistic, clickbait terms – that there is more to life than exams, we run the risk of diminishing the efforts of young people and of marginalising their achievements.
These are exams for which students have studied, revised and sweated. Let’s not denigrate their hard work and commitment –nor, indeed, that of their teachers – by insisting that they mean very little.