As another cohort of A’Level results are published and Liz Nicholls, the CEO of UK Sport announces that the UK is now a sports superpower, perceptions of our Olympic success in 2016 may shed some light on how we view exam success.
Britain’s haul of 67 medals, including 27 golds, was famously this country’s finest ever performance and was the return on an investment of £274 million, making each medal worth £4.1 million and infinitely more to many of those who won them.
Yet Greg Rutherford fought back tears to admit “I am gutted” after winning bronze in the long jump. The Azerbaijani wrestler, Mariya Stadnik, was inconsolable after losing her championship bout and she ripped her silver medal from her neck as soon as it had been presented, throwing it to the ground in disgust as she left the podium.
In contrast, others were overjoyed with success even though gold eluded them. Dan Goodfellow and Tom Daley spontaneously leapt into the pool with delight when they secured bronze. For thousands of other Olympians, simply to have achieved their place, represented their nation and experienced the games will have furnished them with a lifetime of proud memories. One such was Syrian Yusra Mardini who competed for the Refugee Team and won her 100m butterfy heat just over three years after swimming for her life in the Mediterranean after the boat in which she was escaping war capsized.
The difference in perception is, of course, all about expectations and targets. So too it is with exams. For every gold-medallist A* candidate who grabs the press headlines, there will be legions of hard-working and earnest youngsters who have achieved or exceeded their more modest goals from A-E. D and E grade candidates have been known to whoop with joy just as much as their A* friends if that was the grade that they were targeting.
As schools compile their results tables and crunch the percentages, it remains the perennial case that the most academically successful schools on paper are the most selective. Even maintained schools, academies and Sixth Form colleges which flaunt their “comprehensive” ethos have long been in the habit of creaming off the A’Level candidates while other children are channelled towards vocational or technical routes. This may well be a good idea, but it does not provide clarity about what each institution is actually doing for its children.
The real answer comes in the form of independently assessed value-added, something that no league table ever includes because it’s a bit complicated. Fortunately, Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring provides precisely such data for those schools which are truly interested in how they are performing and in challenging each child against independent benchmarks. An A* grade candidate should be capable of achieving an A* grade anywhere. The real challenge in teaching comes in setting high achievable expectations for the A-E grade candidates and then exceeding them. That is what adding value is about and that is truly worth celebrating.
Barnard Castle School has congratulated all of its candidates on their success, whether they were obviously exceptional or equally meaningful personal bests. While we ponder success at the highest level, there is also value in considering the legacy and example of the American 5000m runner Abbey D’Agostini who, having clipped and tumbled to the ground with Nikki Hamilton, simply stopped to help and encourage her New Zealand rival back to her feet so that, in obvious distress, they finished their Olympic race and formed a bond for life. Good schools teach many lessons.
Alan Stevens is the Headmaster of Barnard Castle School