It hadn’t dawned on me that I would be signed into work on my return from holiday by a member of the Class of 2018 but, of course, I should have remembered that a hardy group of leavers is always employed during the summer holidays to ferry contractors to and fro, to answer ‘phones, to lumber several tonnes of stationery and to sign in errant Headteachers. But as I duly signed in I realised that I would know the young people’s results a day before they could have them, and would have to maintain inscrutability throughout. How long the wait for results seemed to have been!

Despite the intermittent changes to A levels (the introduction of AS levels in 2000, and their replacement by so-called linear exams from 2017), many adults are familiar with the exams which eighteen-year-olds take: the idea of sixth form specialisation in three or four subjects as a preparation for university entrance or for work is pretty familiar, even to those who chose another post-16 route. The French have their Baccalauréat, the Germans their Abitur, the Austrians their Matura; the Scots have their Highers and the English, Welsh and Northern Irish, our A levels. Our exams are part of our national identities which goes a long way to explain why we all – teachers or not – feel entitled and equipped to comment.

Highgate’s just invited parents to take part in an externally-hosted survey, and exams featured, of course. Some respondents mused why results weren’t higher still, given the pressure to find a place at our school: if we have the choice of who we take, and we use academic tests to select pupils, surely our results shouldn’t include a pupil getting less than an A or an A*? Others, however, wondered whether our position in the league tables forces our hand in policy-making: surely requiring Year 11 pupils to get a minimum number of A-grade passes at GCSE in order to embark on A level courses is in the interests of results rather than individuals?

Highgate continues to let the ISC release its results to the national press so that our position in the national table of independent schools at A level and at GCSE is available to the public. The version which emerges first, a week or so after the results are published, doesn’t include about fifty or so schools, including some of our London competitors, so comparison isn’t perfect, but we sense that not including the results one year would raise more questions than it would answer, so we carry on. But no school is allowed to explain its results – that’s the function of your own website, your own blog. So, here goes!

All-through schools, like Highgate, admit pupils at a variety of stages – typically at 3 or 4, at 7, at 11 and at 16. It’s quite difficult to predict long-term academic performance earlier than 11, and even that is quite a task, before the onset of serious adolescence! We reckon that, at best, tests at 3, 7 and 11 tell us that children may be ready and equipped for a Highgate education for the next four or five years, but we have decided not to have transition tests between our pre-prep, junior and senior schools: we’d be opening the door to anxiety, to test-driven teaching and possibly to tutoring. So we don’t put pupils through this, and they transfer pretty automatically, unless a real problem has cropped up along the way – we’d like them to thrive, but we need them to cope. While we do (now) have a GCSE threshold for safe passage to the sixth form, it’s engineered to be as low as possible to ensure just that: safe passage.

The 2018 results suggest that we haven’t got it too badly wrong: 39% of all grades were A* (or the Pre-U equivalent, distinction); 76% were either A* or A, and 110 students, or 68% of all candidates, got at least one of the very top grades. 34 had only A*. But of course that leaves the candidates – about 10% – whose determined labours didn’t land them with an A* or an A. Some encountered obstacles not of their making that would have flawed even the ablest of minds; some never quite hit their stride; and others simply worked phenomenally hard, and should be just as proud as any of the A star hunters. Could you see that in an eleven-year-old’s face?

Another question that is good to ask Highgate, if it’s not chasing after league table positions, is why its results have gotten better year on year – these are our best ever, and we’re (quietly) proud to be celebrating that! We believe that we’re seeing the benefit of an exam system which is as closely aligned as we have seen in a decade with the way we wish to teach: give students two years to dig deep into a subject they really love, and let teachers loose to explore the subject before they home in on exam technique, and you find yourself using intellectual curiosity as the motor for hard work. Young people like mastering things properly, and relish setting their academic agenda for themselves. Of course, that needs quite a bit of academic maturity, and that needs careful nurturing, but two years without assessment-led interruptions is time aplenty for that to grow.

It’s not unhelpful to turn the telescope round to make sense of results as a student leaves school: after all, we’re all trying to make sense of what the results mean, and can ever mean, for those that follow on. But as we celebrate these best-ever results, and the context of their achievement, I’d like to be careful for what we wish for, and to ensure that any further climb comes from thinking about what makes for the happiest childhood, the best learning and the bounciest springboard for the future!