No one ever got an Olympic medal for A-level grades – your character will determine your success in life

17 August 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

The Telegraph, 17.08.16, writing ahead of A-level results tomorrow, HMC member Shaun Fenton, headmaster of leading independent Reigate Grammar School on why exam results are only half of what makes a great education.

T’was the day before Results Day and all through the house …. Nervous?  Me too. As you await A level results tomorrow, please remember that success and failure are both mere imposters and certainly do not define you. You are far more than your results and – I will let you into a secret that teachers do not always share - your future relies on your grades far less than you might think.

It is schools, and not just students, who will be judged by exam results this week. My students are likely to score at the top of the league tables again this year so you might think I would be a fan – far from it.

Grades, certificates, league tables only measure half of what makes a great education. They do not measure crucial things like the quality of friendships, preparedness for adult life, team-working skills, or leadership qualities.

I am head of an independent school and have been head of an outstanding state grammar school and of an outstanding comprehensive school, so I know how our independent schools differ from those in the state sector.

Their independence allows them to value far more than Ofsted's data or league table scores. At an independent school it is far easier to surf over this year’s politically-motivated target and focus on helping children to be, and do, their best, even when these types of outcomes can’t be put in a spread sheet.

The pursuit of excellence transcends Ofsted or league tables. Indeed, there should be as many ways to succeed as there are children in the school.

So celebrate your results, but remember that no one ever got an Olympic medal for A-level grades. Grades matter, of course, and in life beyond school, grades can open doors of opportunity, but you need to have fine qualities of character to become a happy and successful adult. It is your character that will make the biggest difference.

What are those qualities? Well, you could find self-help books, nurture a growth theory and do a SWOT analysis to capture a picture of the personal qualities you may need for success in adult life. However, for me, the answers are to be found in a poem that we present to every new student.

“If” is regularly voted the nation’s favourite poem despite having been written over a century ago. Kipling describes qualities that are as relevant today as then: dealing well with victory and defeat, overcoming tiredness, always giving your best.

People describe these qualities in different ways, and my old headmaster talked in assembly of “stickability”, a type of perseverance, a dogged self-belief, a determination that won’t be quashed despite the odds.

This is often talked about as as a quality common to champions. How many times has that been the decisive factor for Olympians this week?  How irrelevant are A-level grades in Rio?

So, good luck tomorrow. I really hope that you get to celebrate good grades, but nil desperandum if you are faced with disappointing grades and the kind commiserations that will come from well-meaning family and friends.

If that is the hand you are dealt, remember that, as Kipling said: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same; yours is the earth and everything that's in it.”

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