The real achievement behind GCSE and A-Level results

Would it surprise you to know that I don't just look at GCSE and A-Level grades as being a reflection of academic ability?

To me, they're not just a measure of how ‘clever' someone is.

Instead, GCSE and A-Level grades tell a story, boiled down into a letter or a number, of two years of human life.

And, it's what you make this story mean that defines how you move forward from results day and create the rest of your life.

Let me explain this a bit more…

The real achievement behind GCSE and A-Level results

Most people think that GCSE and A-Level results are purely a measure of academic ability – and to most people this means something to do with quantifying intelligence.

But, having been through the system myself and helped hundreds more through it as a teacher and academic coach, I know there's far more to it.

Exam results are the outcome of a human life over the two years preceding them. Whilst they do measure academic ability, they also tell you something about an individual's commitment, the adversity they've faced, the choices they've made, their personal priorities and the support they have in place.


I know from my own experience as a GCSE and A-Level student that commitment counts for a massive amount. I was born lucky with the brain that I've got, the support from my parents and the lack of adversity in my life. But, my sister was born into the same situation with a brain that is probably sharper than mine, but she lacked the commitment. I came out of the A-Level years with stunning grades (five As in the days before A*s) and she came out with a hodge podge of grades for a range of AS and A level subjects that no-one can really remember.

I am certain that it was my commitment and her lack of commitment that made the difference.


All students getting GCSE and A-Level results in 2021 have faced adversity in the form of the pandemic. Many students have had months without in-school education and have floundered.

One member of The Extraordinaries Club springs to mind. She was a year 13 student who joined the club in January 2021. She came into the club really doubting her ability. During the first Covid lockdown and school closures (March-July 2020) she had really struggled and barely done any work at all. She had heaps of random notes in disorganised piles all over her desk and in her end of year 12 / UCAS school exams in September 2020 she had done really badly.

She now had this story in her head that she was a ‘bad student'.

Basically, she hadn't responded well to the adversity of school closures. But, there was still time to rescue the situation and she worked incredibly hard from January until May to prove to her teachers what she could do.

She decided to stop wallowing in the adversity and take responsibility. I am very hopeful for her results this week. But, no matter what her results are, the greatest take-away she will have from this experience is that she can turn things around for herself when she believes in herself and does the work.

This is the kind of learning that stays with us for life.

I fully recognise that many students go through much greater adversity than the student I've described here. I've heard of students who have been bereaved during their exams or who have been struggling with severe physical or mental health problems throughout their time studying for their exams. This level of trauma or hardship is extremely difficult to deal with – but again, is part of the story that a set of exam results tell. And, luckily, these days, there are opportunities to let exam boards, universities and employers know about mitigating circumstances.


There are choices to be made when studying for exams – and the results you get reflect those choices.

I often talk about the amount of work it takes to reach your academic potential and I have also talked about the need for students and parents to make informed choices about whether they are willing to do the work that it takes. For some families, they value other things more than academic endeavour. For other families, academic pursuits trump all other activities.

The tragedy is when students have made passive choices – i.e. they didn't understand the trade-off they were making between hours on the Xbox and revision – and they are landed with results that reflect the choice they made in favour of gaming when they would have chosen differently if the explicit choice had been made clear to them.

But, again, it's all about framing this choice and how that helps you move forward with your life. If you look at the choices you made, accept responsibility for them but know that you want to make different choices in the future that's a positive outcome. It may mean there are some short-term obstacles in terms of getting into your chosen sixth form or university – but there is always a way of achieving your ultimate goal in the long-term if you're truly committed. I'm always hearing about people who were written off at school, but have gone on to achieve incredible things. Lisa Cherry, one of my podcast guests is an example. She was written off at school but now has an MA and is studying for a DPhil at Oxford University.

Some students and parents will make the decision that academic achievement is not a priority for them. I remember one club member, who was dyslexic, wanted to pursue a career in dance. She spent all her time outside school dancing. She joined the club to make sure she passed what she needed to pass to move on in the dance world. She didn't want any more than that. This is a completely legitimate choice to make – but it should be made conciously.


Some young people are supported better than others. In my work I come across the lucky ones whose parents really want the best for them. That's what I really love about the parents who join The Extraordinaries Club – they're generally not ‘tiger' parents who want to push their children to academic heights, no matter what the cost. Instead, they are concerned with parenting their children so they emerge into the adult world as balanced, rounded and happy individuals.

Other young people come from chaotic and difficult homes where no real regard is given to education and, for young people in these situations it is a virtually impossible battle to achieve academically.

There is also the issue of how supportive a students' friendship group is. If their friends are studious and hard-working it's highly likely that this peer influence will translate into better grades. However, if their friends have made the active choice to spend more time on the Xbox (or other non-academic activities) it will be hard for an individual student to swim against that tide.

We saw this with a student whose parents signed him up for academic coaching last year. His whole friendship group was completely disillusioned with A-Level study. They felt like they'd been sold a lie: that it would all be easier after their GCSEs were over. The whole group was in active revolt against academic study. There was nothing anyone could do or say to make this young man change his outlook and priorities while he was still part of that group of friends.

What's your story?

So, if you're a parent or student listening to this who is expecting exam results this week I'd love you to reflect on the story that those results tell and think about how your results reflect your life as a whole for the past two years. This is the human side of things, but it's also the way you motivate yourself to move forwards and how you ‘sell' yourself for future opportunities.

Can you use the things you've learned the hard way during your GCSE or A-Level studies as an interesting story to show how you've grown and changed when you go for any interview?

Have you got a story about how you've overcome adversity?

Can you see an opportunity for growth and change when you reflect on the last two years?

Have these results made you re-evaluate your goals and choices so that you're now moving towards something that fits your talents, values and constraints better?

Getting your exam results isn't the end of your story. It's just they end of a chapter. It's up to you how you write that chapter for both yourself and others to read in the future. It's also up to you how you draft the next chapter of your story – and how you actually live it.

Taking responsibility

The most important thing in all this is to take responsibility for the things that you can or could have controlled. It will be very easy this year to blame results on the pandemic or the way that schools have awarded results. But, it won't help you in the future if you don't take full responsibility for your part in the results you receive this week.

Take responsibility, move on and craft a better and better story as life goes on.

And, if you're in year 10 or year 12 take the time now to think about the choices you are making and whether you're taking full responsibility for your part in your exam results next year. If you're ready to make a positive choice to reach your academic potential, we can help make that happen with the information and support inside The Extraordinaries Club.



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