The Day before GCSE Results Day

Twenty-four hours before my oldest child receives her GCSE results, it’s hard not to relive the day the game was up for me.   One thing I’ve learned about being a parent is that  it’s impossible not to revisit my own past as my children grow older.

Results Day

Until my ‘O’ Level (as these exams were called in my day) results arrived, to the outside world, I was a quiet, mousey, serious teenager, probably destined for ‘A’ Levels, university and a professional career. In class, my creative writing was read out to other students as an example of excellence. One of my English teachers once triple-underlined the opening sentence of one of my short stories and said “My God, that’s good.”

In class discussions about politics, current affairs and religion, I could be relied upon to have an opinion, to put across the underdog’s point of view and argue for social justice. I watched news programmes and Party Political Broadcasts and harboured the thought of a career in that realm, or in journalism. As well as this, I might be a writer, I thought.

My teachers, generally, knew my grades and, undoubtedly, knew that I wasn’t destined for academic success but that never stopped me from dreaming and planning my adult life. Among friends, I shared my ambitions and dreams, knowing that I wasn’t on target to receive high exam results but believing that my passion and strong beliefs would see me through. Somehow.

Everything changed when the envelope containing my exam results landed on my doormat. The results were no worse than I’d expected. I’d passed in five subjects and I’d failed Maths. I felt like the same person: a sixteen year old girl who liked reading and writing, going to the cinema, watching television, talking about current affairs. What changed was how other people interacted with me.

Rather than ask which book I was reading, which film I liked, what I thought about a TV programme, my friends asked about my grades. Meeting new people, going for a Saturday job, talking to new teachers in the Sixth Form, the question was the same. “How many subjects? What were your grades?” When I told them my results, it seemed to me that people were making judgements and assessments about me, about what I was capable of. Was I imagining it or were people speaking to me as if I was a bit stupid?

People who’d previously sought me out in a discussion now seemed to look away while I was speaking. Was it my imagination or were they no longer interested in what I thought about anything?

I made it into the Sixth Form and started studying for ‘A’ Levels in English Literature, History and Religious Studies. I found the work difficult and I began to wonder if I was making a mistake. What if I spent two years studying and ended up failing them all? Clearly, I wasn’t good at passing exams, in fact I wasn’t clever at all. Wouldn’t it be better to leave school and look for a job?

There were other complications in my life, which I won’t go into now, but after two terms in the Sixth Form, full of self-doubt, with no confidence and low self-esteem, I did, indeed, leave school and start work. And, actually, it wasn’t a complete disaster at all, in fact I had some incredibly exciting and joyful times and made many new friends and achieved all sorts of successes to do with making a living and creating a home for myself.  And I quietly continued to educate myself by acquiring skills, continuing to read, learning languages and engaging with cultural pursuits.

But it wasn’t until I was 30, and finally a student at university, that I re-connected with my sixteen year old, pre-Results Day self and re-ignited my passion for reading and writing. It took me fourteen years to remember what was really important to me. I haven’t had a glittering career but I did enjoy some of the happiest days of my life at uni, not least because I met a wonderful friend who became my husband.  And I’m not a journalist but I do enjoy a bit of blogging and I’m not a politician but I do try to add politics to my poetry from time to time – two subdued interests given a second chance.

But back to Results Day and its associated memories looming large again.  My only wish for my daughter, and for anyone waiting for their results, is that they hold on to who they are and to what’s important to them. Don’t allow what’s written inside a sealed envelope change any of that.  This is what I would have said to my sixteen year old self.   And another thing: it’s likely that some people did react to me differently once they knew my exam results but it’s equally likely that there were plenty of people who didn’t judge me and who treated me the same.  I wish now that I’d sought those people out, that I’d brushed off other people’s prejudice and stayed true to myself and to what I wanted to do.

For now, though, I’m off to do some baking.  Regardless of what the results are, we’re eating cake tomorrow.


14 thoughts on “The Day before GCSE Results Day”

  1. I flunked my O-Levels too, mostly because I was a lazy, arrogant so-and-so who did pretty well without doing any work until that point. It’s not that I wasn’t warned, but who takes adults seriously at 15? I dread my daughter being as lazy and feckless as I was, but exam results are never the last word: I have a U (Unclassified) in English Lit. at O-Level, but I also have a PhD in it. Good luck to your daughter. Whatever is in the envelope she’ll be fine.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a funny old lark, the parenting game! I’m sure both our daughters will be fine – there’s not much we can do about it in any case, other than keep talking to them and keep loving them. Thanks for commenting, Chris!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Josephine, I just lived through my son’s AS levels last week and totally sympathise. Wish I’d thought to bake a cake. But there’s even more pressure on them now than ever. At some point a brave education minister has to ask what exactly we are measuring and why. It certainly has little to do with creativity yet the creative industries make up the fastest growing sector of the economy. Nuts. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Talking to young adults, they’re aware as well that the exam system is flawed but they’ve worked out what they need to do – and the smart ones are finding ways of expressing and developing their creativity outside the world of exams. I think the important thing is to take some of the pressure off our children by assuring them that exams are NOT everything. Thanks for kind wishes, Mark. 🙂


  3. This essay — I mean the lovely natural pace, the interwoven themes, the subtly shaded tones, the wholeness emerging beyond the formal experienced literary whole of the essay itself — THAT confirms the story! That cake is a brilliant touch taking us beyond the words! Smell the baking! Party time, no matter what the results! I think this kind of writing, call it the personal essay, is a remarkable accomplishment and in this case perfectly suited to the occasion. It is a form worthy of more respect. Thank you Josephine!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Josephine,

    Like your daughter, my eldest child (son) also awaits his results tomorrow. He’s hoping to have done well so he can get into this sixth form that he’s talked about attending for a long time. I hope he gets in, but you’re right–it’s hard. Not only as parents do we want our kids to do well, but we don’t want to push our own unfilfilled dreams onto them. At the same time we want to convey how important it is to do well in school. It’s a catch-22. In the States, we don’t have these big exams, but grade point average is equally important and there is, like you experienced, that quizzing and subtle judging of one another–“What did you get? What did you get?”–because without a great grade point average you aint getting into university. There was a very interesting article in The Guardian’s Family section on Saturday on encouraging parents not to get obsessive with their kids’ results and to just let them be–to not judge, like you so eloquently encouraged. The article also points out that will be more difficult in 2 years’ time when these exams move to the 1-9 grading system, when the obsession on performance will deepen. In the end,even if dreams don’t come true, it’s very important to still encourage them in our children–it gives them focus, motivation, something to aim for. For as you show here (I too had writing dreams–of being a world-famous novelist–that didn’t pan out as I had hoped), it’s not so much the goal, but the journey that we must treasure, and the joys that adventure brings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Charles, and best wishes to your son for tomorrow! Thankfully he’s part of a supportive family and will know you’re all looking out for him as he chooses which path to follow at this point in his life. I think I read that article – I try hard not to live my life *through* my kids! My son will be the first to take English and Maths with the new 1-9 grading so that’s something for us all to look forward to! I so agree with you about the journey but it has taken me a few decades to adopt this philosophy. Thanks, again. 🙂


  5. Brava, Josephine! Young people are, indeed, more than the score of their academic grades. I agree that the exam system is flawed. The curriculum is heavily biased in favour of intellectual intelligence, the remaining six (particularly kinaesthetic intelligence) get short measure. During my teacher training, we were taught that any state education system must serve the needs of its society. I can’t help thinking that we are doing little more than educating the next generation of academics with scant disregard for practical life skills, including effective face-to-face communication.
    My son is a loving father to four children, runs a small business against the odds and can turn his hand to anything practical including car maintenance, renovation and kit-building. He has a remarkable work ethic and been in full employment since leaving school at 16 with poor GSCE results. Secondary education made him feel a failure, but he has never looked back.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This brought back a lot of memories, from my own experiences and going through it will my children. At the time, the grades seem to be the most essential thing in the world, as though we’re defined by them as a person. My three did well in the end, but I tried hard to get them to understand that they were valuable and talented regardless of what a piece of paper said!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mir. We’re the day AFTER the GCSEs now and it’s an atmosphere of relief and happiness in our house after a summer of tense anticipation. You’re so right, qualifications are, of course, important, but they do not define us. Thanks for your lovely comment! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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