Let me tell you about my GCSE and A Level experience…
I was a straight-A student. I am firmly in the "was" corner as opposed to the "am" corner. For any student reading this, stop right now and say out-loud either way “I am a 1-9 student” or “I am a BBB student” and “I was a 1-9 student” or “I was a BBB student”, with the grades you are personally predicted. Now, honestly: how does hearing yourself say each version make you feel? I know how deeply personal and long-lasting grades can feel. They are lodged in the mindset, and some believe they define who you are as a youngster or as a unique individual later in life. I look back with a "phew" in my mind: a (retrospective) fondness for the stress I went through when I was 15/16 and 17/18 years' old, and the rewards that ultimately reflected both learning experiences. I know a lot of people in the "am" corner when they talk about their grades from years past. They are usually the ones that can’t let go, and most haven’t gone on to fulfil their true potential. People either do or don’t associate their current selves to their GCSE or A Level / B tech grades
They either cling onto them with a salutary gesture as the pillars of what they have built their life success on, or they don’t. I’m the latter. I see them as things from a distant past, important yes, but belonging to a different self. And I knew at the time that the “future me” was not going to be determined by how well or badly I did in a tiny 4-month window of my life. That didn’t mean I didn’t put in the effort, particularly at 17: I went all out, balancing 3 part-time jobs alongside my A Level study, failing my driving test twice (to the increasing anger of my dad), sprinkled with an existential crisis fuelled by (a lot of) failed attempts at talking to girls (thank god there was no social media on top of all this). I went all out because I knew that regardless of the results, it was the mental strength combined with falling in love with learning that would drive me forward in the real world. I’ve always carried that perspective forward: case in point, I didn’t even turn up to my MA graduation from drama school, and still don’t know what mark I got to this day. The daily physical and mental training was the important bit, not the final result. That’s what I carry into auditions, not my MA certificate.
The people in the “am” corner are usually the ones clinging on to former glories, perhaps afraid of imposter syndrome because, what are they without the exams that made them who they are today? The “am” people often fail to realise that grades are meaningless without an awareness and appreciation of the experiences and soft skills built through doing them, not just the final exams and their result. Yes, it’s lovely to look back and think I did brilliantly, but I feel more and more separate from them each day. Maybe because I always loathed the idea that intelligence is tested via the dog-and-bone approach: look at past papers, learn to the test, calm your nerves, do the test. I knew back then that every single day is an exam: of oneself and one’s attitude to crave being a better person than the day before. Maybe it was also finding my dad’s old secondary school reports in my attic, and seeing that he really disconnected with school, did badly in grades, yet has gone on to become an immensely successful business owner, created by him and my (equally educationally disillusioned) granddad out of nothing. Along this journey, my dad also went to Nottingham Polytechnic to study Electronic Engineering, but failed his course on the final day as he failed to sit his final exam…because his wife went into labour and he chose to dash to the hospital to see their first baby be born healthy (yours truly). He’s never looked back and said his grade (or lack of it at all) held him back from becoming what he is. Everything he experienced helped set him up for his business. And it hasn’t always been sunshine and roses: they got hit by the recession in 2008, bounced back and had the best years ever, but then who knows if they will make it through Covid-19 (their bespoke kitchen orders have decreased significantly). What life throws at each of us happens for a reason. I genuinely believe that.
In the big bad world, they don’t call them exams, they call it “getting through the day and coming out the other side”. I would say to any student out there being fuelled by anxiety in isolation that their grades will determine the pathway to the rest of their lives, or who they are, to relax and let what will happen, happen. You can’t control your results now, but you can control your attitude through and after Covid-19 and reflect on the attitude that you had toward learning before this pandemic hit – and to decide whether to build on it or change it. People don’t need a pandemic to fail their exams and completely miss their predicted grades: external factors out of students’ control will always exist and I wouldn't even attempt to guess, for lack of respect to each individual and their domestic/social circumstances, what they are going through on a daily basis. Hopefully most of you out there are ok, and if you’re not, get out of your house and seek help. External factors can also include the lack of sleep caused by a daily addiction to social media or glued to a screen, which can fuel less effective memory storage and recall, then fuelling anxiety then fuelling apathy toward revision, and then potentially fuelling a meltdown on exams day from nerves. At least now, there are no exams, so no chance of meltdown. When I take snap votes in schools in revision techniques sessions, based on the question “who, here, finds nerves the main thing that affects your score on an exam”, almost every hand goes up. Nerves don’t leave a person, and there is a problem if they do: they are our body’s way of telling us that the task ahead is important. So, I am not saying you should be glad you don’t have to experience the nerves of an exam, but I am saying you should use those nerves for the unpredictability of the coming months but use them to your advantage in other ways. Use them to drive you forward to keep your learning up, to keep on top of (reputable) news sources (UCAS, Office for Students) and support (your teachers, contacts at the course or apprenticeship or employment programme you hope to join), and to become a healthier happier version of yourself every single day in isolation. Use the nerves.
I remember the stress of my GCSE and A Level exams: and I was on the AS system where we got a 'second chance' at the end of summer, as we built up points steadily aware that, like a Champions League 2-legged tie, if I went and ballsed it up royally in summer of year 13, I could rely on the hard work of the first leg of the 18 months' prior. Some of my other colleagues and friends in sixth form did the opposite: they royally ballsed up the first leg of the tie, then hoped for a miracle in the exam room. Those final exams were enough stress for me, worse than any pre-gig or pre-audition nerves I've felt as a professional performer...although one might argue it was precisely that exam pressure cooker experience (let's not forget there were practical assessments in there too: not just drama but the dreaded language listening and oral exams), that built my current resilience, nerves-of-steel and ability to handle think-quick situations which I put into practise almost every single day in my life now, whether I am about to speak to 200 lethargic hungry sixth formers in an uninspiring 60s sauna-like hall (oh, that wood panelling, and everywhere), or waiting for the word "action" on a walkie-talkie driving on the right-hand side of the road in central Frankfurt in a £50K 4x4 I daren't scratch for fear of Mazda's head bosses firing me remotely from Japan, or instructing a panicking scuba diving student to stay calm in a freezing lake. It could be argued that it is precisely this linear winner-takes-all exams that builds the employability skills (critical thinking, coping under pressure, adaptability, working to deadlines, self-reliance) to make a young person more desirable...but every coin has two sides, and often one is more scratched than the other…
My own struggles with mental health mean I'm not inclined to focus on the shiny near-perfect side of the coin shimmering with rock-solid nerves, and to always remember that with the rise in anxiety and stress in youngsters (thank you, social media) everyone has the ability to 'flunk' on exam day. Even the most admirable and studious teenager who eats the right 'brain foods', gets good sleep, and has a plan so organised it rivals a NASA space launch. I don’t personally think every single student will be bricking it about the lack of exam and upcoming grades in summer. Maybe this is a chance of the government to reassess how, in fact, it could be precisely the linear system of “all or nothing” that fuels a longer-running anxiety amongst teenagers in normal school times anyway. If there have been dips in work due to external factors such as family bereavements, mental health or physical impairments, then these will all be taken into account by your teachers. Remember this: an exam board doesn’t know the human being and all their circumstances and personal barriers. Your teacher does and knows you better than most (even if you don’t think they do). Maybe some students like idea of a faceless adjudicator, as it allows them to throw insults at them and an enemy who didn’t give them what they felt they deserved, but surely there’s a glimmer of positivity and hope to be taken from the idea that the person who knows you best over months of study will be able to project the trajectory based on your longitudinal efforts, and where you would have been come the final exam? For those students who rely on the final “I’ll blag it on the day” approach to learning, who didn’t turn up or just didn’t find the motivation to care, there is a harsh lesson there: effort can’t just be put off for a gamble on the final day. Most of learning is developmental, based on failing first (and embracing that) followed by rising to the challenge of making yourself curious enough about something to find a way to understand it, in a relevant (and hopefully fun, emotional) way.
Yes, some young people just don’t fit the rigid educational system pre-16, and students must remember that there might be a chance to re-sit (or finally sit) exams in the autumn to have another crack at their final grades (watch this space). The same goes for those in Year 13. However, if you’ve not put in the effort for your B Tech or A-level grades, I’ve less sympathy as the structure of learning (and assessments) is more flexible in post-16 education…and you chose what you chose. You had time to do that and research and suit it more to your lifestyle than GCSEs. Yes, the step up was always going to be hard (don’t think I don’t remember), but it’s a challenge that one needs to rise to. That’s why it is called “further” education: you are pushing yourself further than before – including push through pandemics. As I said, teachers know this, and know the step up better than anyone, so it could work to a your advantage as they plot a trajectory from your work at the start of year 12 to where you would have been at the end of year 13. Looking at your growth in attitude (not always just marks) in that time.
Maybe isolation is a chance for students to take a good hard look in the mirror and open up some really frank and honest conversations with their parents around their daily life structures: it is a chance to slow down, recharge, look at the numbers / routines, then reassess and be ready to go again (like any athlete will tell you, this is an average day). For example: a year 13 reassessing their last 18 months with their parents/carer might make them realise “Wow. That was a lot of collective hours playing video games and on social media, when I could have spent a little more time learning, reading, sleeping, eating better, speaking to grandma, volunteering with the community, helping dad at work…”. Reassessing might bring some skeletons out of the closet for teenagers (and parents too), but better to face up to them now together, whilst we have more time with loved ones to (hopefully) support each other and support change in each other. Learning is a community, and that is what matters, not just a 90-minute exam at the end of a 2-year process.
Also, if you are a parent furloughed right now and reading this, surely this is a chance to reconnect with what your child is actually attempting to learn, and to spend that quality time forming a learning connection with them, which encourages failure to succeed? Resilience, empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence can be built in masses during this lockdown – and those 4 things alone are worth more than any GCSE or A level grade I ever got.
MOJ TAYLOR is an Edinburgh Fringe First winning actor, and stand up comedian - being selected for the BBC's Stand Up If You Dare competition, for Comic Relief (and being mentored in comedy by Jasper Carrott). He was the first Taylor of his family to graduate a higher education course, reading Hispanic Studies & Drama from Queen Mary University of London before undertaking an MA in screen acting at Drama Centre London. He has appeared in various high-profile commercial campaigns (Asics, Nivea, Mazda, Lexus, Movember) and has delivered over 3,000 workshops to young people across the UK via PUSH and ComedyClub4Kids. He is also a PADI Divemaster, and has assisted on various conservation projects on seagrass and carbon emissions in the UK and The Baltic Sea. He is passionate about getting young people to scuba dive, as a way to develop their soft skills, self-confidence and resilience and over the last decade he has helped develop the Push framework on proactive choices, youth employability, effective learning and public speaking / comedy workshops to develop crucial soft skills/resilience in teenagers.
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