Where’s Wally?

Chris Wheeler high-resSitting in a cafe in North Devon this summer, my 11 year old daughter, on spotting a passing stranger in a stripey jumper, suddenly shouted, ‘Look, it’s wally!’. When I was at school, ‘wally’ was a derogatory term for someone who wasn’t doing very well; now, it seems, it is someone noteworthy; someone who is impressive (either because of his/her amazing stripey jumper or in some other way…). Wally has changed and now he is someone kids want to be.

On GCSE and A-level results days and at the start of each new school year as schools report on exam results, they tend to get very focused on percentages of top grades, individuals who have achieved top grades and subjects whose pupils have achieved high numbers of top grades. But what of those of us who worked really hard for something and achieved it when that something was not a top grade?

For me, it was Maths GCSE. Although I had originally been good at Maths, things slipped a lot as I became increasingly interested in English and the arts and my Maths grade in a mock dropped to an E. I was mortified that I had dropped the ball so badly, especially when I learned that I had to get a C grade in Maths if I was to have realistic ambitions for university. So I had to work hard. At my school you could take GCSEs early if you got into high enough sets. So I worked really hard, got into the lowest set for an early exam, scraped my C grade and was then released from Maths forever. It wasn’t very mature. But it was quite a personal victory.

In this post GDPR age, how do we celebrate individuals? How do we ensure that those for whom a 4 was a huge success are made to feel that their battle counts just as much, perhaps even more, than the pupil who finds their studies easy and breezed 8s or 9s? How do we champion the dyslexic who achieves an impressive 6 or 7 in English or the dyscalculic who manages the same in Maths? There will have been thousands of pupils across the country last week who secured grades that were harder won than all of the 9s put together - those who dealt with terrible loss in their GCSE year or were battling challenges with their emotional health and succeeded, to their own measure, all the same.

At Monkton, our start of term assembly sees us citing not only those who have achieved high grades but also those who have won significant personal victories. We don’t distinguish between them, we just raise up the names of those who are noteworthy in their performance. We need to help all children through any embarrassment at performing well just as we need to help all children feel that performing well, at whatever level is relevant to them, should be their aim. I am sure at school level lots of us do the same but how can we recognise this at national level? How can we encourage government to recognise those vital results in every school across the country and not just focus on pass grades or top grades?

I was always told that just because something is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it - it usually means we should. Protecting children’s data whilst celebrating their success is certainly hard. Counting as relevant statistics those who battled and won seems impossible. But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t do it. For all those individuals out there who beat the odds, defied everyone’s expectations or overcame huge struggles to achieve their aims, I salute you. We need to find a way to do that nationally, in independent and maintained schools, both to make sure their achievement is recognised but also to inspire those who come behind. It is time to shape some criteria and an award which will recognise those whose challenge was great but whose resolve was greater.

It turns out that Wally is everywhere, we just need to find a way to give him a jumper.


Chris Wheeler

HMC Vice Chair and Head at Monkton Senior School