Managing Expectations

In a school like Headington I am constantly impressed with the girls’ work ethic. Our girls work incredibly hard, make remarkable progress and record excellent results. They do that within an atmosphere of nurture and support alongside the necessary stretch and challenge. We expect a lot of them but they expect even more of themselves and we need to be wary of that.

Things are changing in education – aren’t they always? – but the current change is one which has the potential to have a real and noticeable impact on girls in particular. Many years ago, A*s were introduced to identify the very highest achieving pupils – the crème de la crème – first at GCSE then more recently at A Level. The Government has now decided this is not enough so it is all change for GCSEs. Alphabetical grades are out and pupils will now be awarded a grade from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest. As these things are never straightforward, exam boards are introducing this gradually, so some subjects will have a number and others a letter. It is further complicated by the fact that many schools like Headington also offer International GCSEs – some of which will be converting to the new system but not necessarily at the same time. As if this weren’t confusing enough, the two systems do not directly translate to each other – you can’t say if you would have previously achieved an A* you will now get a 9 . The goal is to differentiate between the very top few pupils who really excel. It has become ‘too easy’ to get an A*, so it will be far, far harder to get a 9.

This all sounds good in theory – more ways to distinguish between different pupils, a new system untainted by the old chestnut that GCSEs are getting easier – but look closer and there are a number of issues. This summer’s GCSE cohort at Headington achieved A*s, the top grade, in well over half of all exams, while around four out of five of all papers were marked at an A or higher. We are told that the 7-9 grades will be awarded to a similar proportion of papers but the very top grade, the elusive 9, will go to just a fifth of those previous A-A* papers. This is a big change.

A recently published study from the National Citizen Service showed that over half 15 to 17 year olds surveyed felt school work had to come before anything else – just 39 per cent prioritised their own happiness over grades. Our girls want to do the best. They want to be the best they can be. While aiming high and being ambitious can be healthy, the expectations young women can put on themselves and the pressure they put themselves under can be anything but. I talk to my colleagues at boys’ schools and they speak of the frustrations they sometimes have of very capable boys failing to apply themselves to their full potential. Our challenge is the opposite – putting exams into perspective. Maintaining a sensible balance between study, extra-curricular pursuits, family time and time for yourself. Being realistic about results. Learning that it’s okay not to be perfect all the time and that you can learn from failure.

Girls who would have expected straight A*s will not see that translated into a string of 9s. That’s not what the new grading system is for – it’s not about sweeping the board with the top grade. For high achievers, that is difficult to swallow and it is our job to make sure they know that a 7 or an 8 is still a really fantastic achievement. If our girls do get a couple of those 9s in subjects in which they really do excel, that is to be celebrated as the exception, not the expectation.


Caroline Jordan, Headmistress, Headington School 

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