Exam results

The long summer break from school is progressing with only two full weeks of the holiday left before the autumn term of the new academic year must be faced. My teenage children are acting bored at times but show little interest in suggested activities. The essential shopping trips have been completed, dental appointments and haircuts endured, bedrooms have been tidied and the clearout of last years books and papers accomplished. The main challenge still to be faced is exam results which are due at the end of this coming week.

Naturally I want my children to do well. They have high expectations and I do not wish to see their self esteem knocked. Whatever their results though, I hope that they will accurately reflect their abilities.

I did better than expected in the exams I sat at sixteen, largely due to the fact that the friends I had at the time were conscientious students who were willing to coach me in aspects of the subjects I was studying and struggled with. I was eager to impress and responded enthusiastically to what was, in effect, private tutoring. Whilst this did wonders for my eventual grades it did not make me any more clever. Once I moved on from this group and was left to manage purely on my own resources my exam grades fell. I felt, thereafter, a disappointment to my parents who did not realise that I had been helped to prepare for that first set of important, public exams.

I have read that straight A students struggle when they first fail. Whether this happens at school, university or the world of work, life is never going to be filled with unmitigated success. Learning to pick oneself up after a fall from grace and move forward with renewed determination to succeed is a life lesson that all can benefit from. It is, however, such a difficult experience to deal with at the time. The fear of failure can cause bright students to aim lower than their abilities could allow, leaving them questioning thereafter what might have been. The stress of overly high expectations can cause hard working students to burn out rather than flourish.

As a parent it is difficult to know how to approach the subject of exams. I know that my children are capable and wish to encourage them to stretch themselves. I do not, however, wish them to think that the results of exams will define them. In the world in which we live their exam results matter, but so too does personality and ambition. How we treat others and our attitude to the world around us can have a greater impact on where we end up than an A grade in a subject studied as a teenager. The exam result may be needed to get the interview, but genuine interest, determination and resourcefulness will impress an admissions tutor or an employer at least as much as a top grade.

I would guess that my children have heard all this before but do not perhaps understand just how important the ability to cope with set backs is. My son in particular has sailed through academia without much effort; I wonder if he will know how to apply himself when he reaches the point where this becomes necessary. He has an expectation of success without trying. He is not learning the importance of planning and preparation because, thus far, he has not found effort necessary in order to achieve.

These are lessons that I cannot teach. When I try to encourage more focused endeavour I am accused of nagging; when I try to talk about the importance of achievement I am accused of causing stress with my high expectations. I cannot seem to get my children to understand that it is not the absolute result that matters so much as trying to be as good as one is able. I do not need my children to shine so long as they have done their best.

Whatever the outcome of these exams, and they will be the first of many that my children will have to sit in the coming years, I hope that I can respond in whatever way they need. Whether we are celebrating a success or supporting a setback it is how they move on from here that matters.

Good grades may make things easier at this stage in their lives, but the performance of schoolchildren tells us nothing about the grown-ups that these children will turn into. Whatever their abilities and potential, how they use and develop these, their attitude, treatment of others and how they manage their life experiences matter more. The people they become may be shaped by the options available based on exam results, but how they utilise the opportunities available will define them.

English: School children doing exams inside a ...


Benefiting those who already have

Next week my elder son will not be going to school. Instead, he will be spending five days in an office as part of his school’s work experience programme. Whilst the idea behind this scheme is commendable, in practice it seems to benefit those students whose parents can organise a suitable placement for them. I wonder what lesson we are teaching our children when it is demonstrated to them that those who already have influential contacts within the world of work get the most interesting opportunities, leaving the rest to cope with what is left as best they can.

Perhaps my views have been unfairly skewed by my own, limited experience. Last year my daughter had to go through the process of finding a company willing to take her for this week of work. She followed the instructions given by the school and searched the database of companies supposedly willing to take students on. She made her initial applications through this system for the positions that best matched her interests, but received no response. When she was advised that some of the companies may have withdrawn from the scheme and she would need to apply to others, the database would not support the change. The application process that had initially looked well thought out and straightforward did not, in reality, work.

From talking to friends with children in the same year group it became obvious to me that parents were circumventing the school’s processes and sorting out placements for their children within their own workplaces or those of family members and friends. These children were being offered a week with computer games designers, journalists, accountants and sports coaches; all of interest to the individual students. School was more than happy to accept these placements, subject to health and safety checks. The paperwork required did make me wonder why any companies were willing to take the students on. I wondered how many favours were being called in by parents in influential positions.

My personal view was that getting the job was as valuable an experience as doing the job, and I was reluctant to become involved. I also felt that my daughter should be able to travel independently to and from her place of work, which necessitated a direct and regular public transport link, thus further limiting her choice. My view was not popular; school became more and more irate as she failed to organise her own placement. Her numerous phone calls to companies on the database led nowhere.

With just a couple of weeks to go and no placement sorted my daughter was threatened with a week of emptying bins around her school. This looked to me like a punishment more than a valuable week of work. At the last minute, a split placement was found for her which required a uniform that we were expected to provide. We paid for this, and her travel expenses, allowing her to spend two days in a publishing house and three days as a waitress in a coffee shop. The process was frustrating, the implementation costly, the benefit negligible. I know that other children enjoyed their week of work so do not condemn the scheme. However, I was not impressed either with the expectations of the school or the  lessons learnt by the students about how one gets a job.

My son had observed his sister’s experience so was aware of the limitations of the school’s application process. He experienced the same issues with the database not working, companies he rang not having places to offer and school becoming more and more annoyed at his inability to secure a placement. Once again, at the last minute, he came back with some options for us to agree to. Unbeknown to the school, the placement suggested was at the company where my husband currently provides his services.

As the contact listed was known to my husband, it was he who made the initial approach. He was told that, although no placement had been offered (again), they were happy to take his son. We were doing just the thing that I had been trying to avoid; showing my child that nepotism gets you in. Suddenly it was all so easy; we were not going to turn this down.

My son will spend a week in an IT department gaining an insight into the sort of work that interests him; it is a great placement and school is delighted that we have sorted it out. It seems that everyone is happy except for me. It may be the way things work in the real world, but I am uncomfortable with the lesson it teaches my son.

When I was a student I gained work experience by getting a part time job. I learnt about the application and interview process, the discipline required to hold down a job that plenty of others would be willing to do if I quit,  the tediousness of repeated tasks and the need to be always polite and responsive to customers and colleagues. I needed the money so I did each job to the best of my ability.

I know that there are plenty of students who are in the same position today. They compete with others for the low paid, part time work available in shops and fast food outlets; they give up their evenings and weekends to hold down these sought after jobs and earn their spending money. To me, this seems to be a more realistic and useful experience than being handed a role by mum or dad.

I know of many older students who wish to be doctors or nurses and volunteer in hospitals to gain an insight into a job they may wish to pursue. Likewise, summer jobs in an accountants or lawyers office for those who aspire to these disciplines make sense before final decisions about degree courses are made. All the young people I know who have made the most of these opportunities have had parental contacts as well as the get up and go to sort out the placements for themselves. Nepotism is alive and well.

If I were able to exert any influence then I would not hesitate to help my children. I guess that I just feel uncomfortable with school promoting such practices. Our young people will have enough problems gaining a foothold in whatever occupation they choose to pursue without learning so young that their qualifications, aptitude and attitude are not always enough. Opportunities are not always offered equally, real life is not always fair. I am not comfortable, though, with fostering such cynicism at fifteen.

I hope that my son does derive some benefit from his week of work; that he enjoys the experience of learning how an IT office operates and the jobs available in this environment. The idea behind work experience is sound. I remain uncomfortable that it seems to benefit those who already have so many advantages the most.

Graph of Videos Operating System placement on ...