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What does success look like?

Strategies for GCSE SuccessResults season is in full swing

At this time of year when results are coming through thick and fast, first for SATs and Highers and now for A Levels and next GCSEs, I always get to wondering what success looks like.  Of course, the news will be peppered with those wonderful success stories of kids breaking records by passing exams in ever increasing quantities or at ever decreasing ages and our local press will be telling us exactly which kids managed to attain 10A*s in their GCSEs and who’s off to Oxbridge – but is that the only measure of success?


Is academic ATTAINMENT crucial?

Is academic attainment crucial when thinking about success?  Certainly in the target driven environment we’re working in, it’s hard not to focus on the exact nature of our pupils’ results.  Every pupil who gains a C and above is a ‘phew.. well done’ whilst an A or A* is a big pat on the back.  But what really constitutes success for these learners?  Should it all be down to a grade on a piece of paper?  Should they be partitioned so harshly by grade after all those years of study?  Rightly or wrongly, these grades will be a huge focus and turning point in many pupils’ lives.  It will be the information they share with prospective employers or universities and it will be this information that will determine whether or not they’re ‘good enough’ to follow their chosen path.


Or should we be thinking about academic ACHIEVEMENT?

Should we be focused entirely on attainment – the grade achieved at the end of the course – or should we be thinking more in terms of the individual achievements made by the pupils we teach?  Our government and maybe even our senior leadership teams may encourage us to focus on the statistics and the number of passes, but as a teacher, surely the individual stories run a lot deeper than that.  Every teacher knows plenty of kids who put in very little effort but achieve very well, and conversely those children who sweat blood and tears in order to scrape a pass.  Perhaps success should be less about patting ourselves on the back for those easily won As and more about celebrating with the slogger who just about managed to make the C grade?


Would you be more proud of the kid who sweated for a C or the one who walked an A?

Of course, on results day many of the children we teach make us proud, and maybe the kid who walked an A is just as deserving of our pride as the kid who sweated for a C.  I suppose it’s all about individual differences and feeling that every pupil has reached their personal potential.  I suppose we should also ask ourselves whether or not the pupil in question is happy with their results.  If they feel that they’ve done their best, perhaps we should be celebrating with them, even if in our heart of hearts we feel they could do better.


I’ve always felt that I ‘failed’ biology A level due to the attitude of one teacher

I guess I have a pretty big chip on my shoulder about this type of thing as A level results day was a pretty horrific day for me personally.  I had the promise of a place at Oxford if only I could achieve the three As they required.  I knew that it was an impossible target for me following months of illness and a complete inability to understand all the diagrams necessitated by biology A level (about a year later I was diagnosed with dyslexia).  I arrived at school dreading my results.  Knowing before I arrived that I had failed and that ultimately I’d let everybody down.  And sure enough.  I’d ‘only’ got a B in biology.  Before I even opened the envelope, my biology teacher had looked me up and down with disgust and muttered ‘You’ve really let me down.  I thought you were a clever girl’.  To this day I can see the look on her face and I still feel deeply disappointed in myself.  My stomach is actually tying itself in knots just as I write this.  But looking back, I think she was wrong.  Just weeks before the final exam, I had failed my mock exam – even though I had cheated (shhh!) so actually I’d made remarkable progress (thanks to a different, and deeply inspiring, teacher).  I think my B was a success that should have been celebrated and not the failure my teacher considered it.  I’m sure I didn’t do her statistics any good but on a personal level I’d done well.


What do YOU think success looks like?

So what do you think success looks like?  I’d love to hear your stories of pupils who’ve made you proud – no matter what grade they achieved.




7 responses to “What does success look like?”

  1. Avatar Adam Webb says:

    Success should take into account the distance traveled that each learner has completed and each success along the way that should be celebrated (in context). Too much emphasis is placed on the overall results and not how far each learner has come, with each barrier that many face each day. Although the learners that may not have the end results in the form of high grades may be the ones that have achieved so much more throughout their education, than just the grades. Unfortunately we pigeon hole achievement into grades. Yet so many know and agree that this is not the most important factor any more and we should look beyond the end ‘results’and more at where they started, barriers overcome, creativity, imagination and perseverance.

    Or am I wrong!

  2. Avatar Vicky says:

    I’m not a teacher and my experience relates to being a ‘not quite’ student. I’ve got to post because this is something I feel strongly about.
    At university there was financial reward given to the best achiever in the class. This was given out once a year. There was one student who had very little social life, no financial worries, lived alone and never seemed to have any personal problems. I swear she existed on a separate plain of reality. She continuously achieved very high grades. I struggled with severe illness through the final two years and was entirely self-funding so had all the usual financial stress. My grades weren’t as steady or consistently high as the other girl but I still graduated with a First. There was another girl who was extremely ill and was regularly in and out of hospital. Again her grades weren’t quite as high as the first student but they were good. For both of us it was a real battle some days just to get into university let alone get work completed. Who did the reward go to? Obviously the first student. On top of that it was announced and handed out in front of everyone else. I felt utterly demoralised. How do you measure who has achieved the most?

    I remember at school a boy who had severe behavioural problems and performed terribly at school. I heard later that he suffered horrendous physical abuse at home. His mum was highly skilled in smacking her kids round the head with kitchen pans. Then there was the group of straight A students with happy home lives and parents who were teachers and lovingly supported their children in every way they could. The straight A students should be congratulated, but in my opinion a single C grade from the abused boy should be considered so more of an achievement.

    I didn’t do too well in my A levels. I remember walking out of the school after getting my grades and my history teacher was driving out. She stopped her car, wound the window down and shaking her head said “Oh dear, what you could have achieved” and then drove off. She didn’t know that at midnight, the night before my history exam my dad had his hands round my mum’s throat and was slamming her into a wall. My head of sixth form said to me later that the problem with some teachers is that they never take into consideration what is going on outside the classroom.

    Of course there are some excellent teachers out there who do consider wider issues.

  3. Avatar Kathryn May says:

    I know I’m in the USA so our education systems are different, but I thought I’d weigh in anyway.

    I think that part of problem is that we’ve taken to determining a student’s success by a single measure. There are many ways to be successful. Some of those things however, are harder to “measure” than others and therefore often get left out. So, at least in the states, we’ve created these standardized tests that only measure one thing and under NCLB (No Child Left Behind) we’re now labeling schools (and the teachers and the students in them) as “failing schools.” The test don’t take into account the challenges one particular school in an urban neighborhood may face versus a school in the suburbs with a very different student population. We also know that these tests are culturally and gender and socioeconomically biased. So if that is the only thing we are looking at to measure success, then we aren’t getting a clear picture.

    The other issue I have is that when things become so quantitative, it is easy to manipulate those numbers. A phrase I came up with when our new superintendent started was that we were “lowering standards for the appearance of progress.” Under NCLB something like 80% of schools in this country would be considered “failing” so what are we going to do? Change some of requirements. My district now allows seniors to make-up up to four classes that they failed during the year in summer school so that they can graduate at the end of July. Sure it raises our graduation rate and makes us appear more “successful” but what does that really say about our district. Are we “pushing these kids through” that maybe haven’t really mastered the material or that aren’t ready to graduate just to improve our overall appearance of success?

    Measuring success is so tricky…

    • Thanks for visiting the blog Kathryn – lovely to hear your views. It’s interesting to hear the different opinions / approaches of colleagues in different countries.

      Sounds a little bit like you’re in a tricky lose lose kind of a situation here though – do you think there is any way the system could be adapted to better meet the needs of learners?

  4. Avatar Louise Gozzard says:

    My son has just had his GCSE results. 3 As 1B and 7Cs. The result that made us and our son the proudest was the C in maths. He has struggled this throughout his whole school life and was predicted an E. His success was down to the hard work and personal effort he put in to make it happen. The grade C doesn’t reflect that story of personal growth and determination and I’m sure there are other grade C success stories out there.

  5. Avatar Jacqueline Donaldson says:

    Success has been my English Studies class this year. 19 Special needs girls.
    A couple got jobs after the unit on English and the workplace.
    On mass they tell the other teachers that English is their favorite subject, this is from girls who have hated English and always failed at it.
    Girls who because of their nationality know very little about themselves or the world have had opportunities to ask questions they could never ask, like what is AIDS and how do you catch it?
    But the greatest thing is being able to engage these girls when they have been disengaged for so long.

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