BY the end of this week my oldest child will have left secondary school. His last GCSE exam is on Friday morning. It’s physics, not his strongest subject. When he puts down his pen for the final time in that exam hall, it’s all over.
These exams are the first full set taken by Year 11 pupils under the rigorous reforms rolled out under former Education Secretary Michael Gove. And they have certainly been tough. Even the brightest of Jack’s classmates admit they have struggled; it will be interesting to see how results across England and Wales turn out in August.
This, however, is a debate for another day. Right now I’m much given to thinking about just what my son has actually learned at his academy in Barnsley – and what he has taught me about himself, my role as a parent and the education system in general.
Jack’s personal journey has been nothing short of an upwards trajectory. He arrived at the age of 11 with no academic confidence whatsoever. As one of the youngest pupils in his class and struggling with concentration, his SATs results were, frankly, terrible.
He was so scared of going to secondary school, I had to walk him there every morning for a month to psyche him up for the day ahead. Slowly though, he realised that there was nothing to be afraid of. Here was a chance to reinvent himself. And to his credit, he has.
His teachers were admirable from the start. Thanks to careful intervention and special programmes to improve his literacy skills, Jack’s self-belief began to blossom. This gave me faith too; I had picked the right school for my friendly, funny, but sometimes very exasperating son.
And now, as he prepares to leave, Jack can look back at those early days with more self-reflection than I ever imagined him capable of. Unlike his mother, who ducked out of the first year of her own secondary school in fear, and spent most of it at home reading Catherine Cookson novels, he dug in and dealt with the challenge.
His admirable headteacher is always talking about building resilience – and that is what Jack has done. And when I reflect on his journey myself, it strikes me that if a school is prepared to go the extra mile to instil basic literacy skills in a child, it provides a solid platform to build on.
Once Jack got his head around reading and writing, he rapidly developed the ability to embrace English language and literature, history and drama. For his GCSEs, he also picked childcare, the only boy in his year to do so. He might be a teacher himself one day, he thinks. It’s a departure from Premier League footballer for sure.
He now knows that you might set out in one direction in life, but end up doing something completely different to what you intended. Many adults still struggle with this concept. I’m pleased that Jack has learned flexibility and resourcefulness at such an early age. It will serve him well.
He’s also learned to play to his strengths and stick to his guns. I wanted him to study French, but he refused. A lesson there for me in not projecting my own interests onto my children.
I think we both thought that sport would be where he excelled; he’s played football since he could walk. Yet school sport wasn’t for him. His highlight was being crowned year group javelin champion, but the least said about his feeble Year 8 appearance for the rugby team the better.
Rather, it’s on the stage where Jack has found his niche. He actually tried to duck out of signing up for his Drama GCSE, but I found out and talked the teacher into giving him a chance. And he’s certainly made the most of the opportunity. His exam piece as a troubled adolescent brought everyone in the audience to tears; all the hurt, shame and humiliation of his previous struggles clearly informing his performance.
This moved me, but then he brought the 2,000-word accompanying log-book home for me to check over for sense and grammatical errors. I have to admit my heart sank. I was expecting an arduous session with a red marker, probably culminating in one or both of us storming off.
I was taken aback. Somewhere along the way the boy who once found it difficult to scribble a message in a birthday card had learned how to handle language and use it with purpose. No spelling mistakes. No half-formed sentences. Just clear, effective prose.
I only hope that all his written exams are as thorough and clear. I want him to show the examiners his very best work. However I know – and Jack knows too – that the lessons he has learned these past five years go far beyond pen and paper.