“GCSEs are easy!”, “I could pass that in my sleep!”, “The A* pupils, they’re the ones who put the effort in”.
At this time of year I hear these statements frequently, both in the media and in personal conversations. It’s easy to focus on the pupils with the highest marks, they make the positive headlines. It’s easy for us to dismiss GCSEs as something that wouldn’t take much thought, but we would be doing a huge disservice to thousands of young people. What about the pupils who have made the most progress? What about those who stared adversity in the eyes and said, “bring it on!” Those who despite all the battles they face daily, still push on to achieve.
The irony of those opening statements is not lost on me. It is very hard for most of us to truly empathise with the challenges that some pupils, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, face. “Hold on,” I hear you exclaim, “I had a difficult upbringing and look at me now!” Well it deeply troubles me that I have to share the irrefutable fact that you are the exception. In 2017, only 1 in 3 pupils who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are achieving five solid GCSEs (ref). If your response was: “It was hard work that got me through. Yes, I come from a middle-class family but it was my dedication that got me my good results,” then I am also sorry to report that, despite your opinion that hard work was the only thing that helped you along the way, you started off several rungs up the privilege ladder.
When I talk to friends, family or other contacts about the challenges our young people face, they initially seem reluctant to accept these as legitimate barriers to success. To combat this, I want to shed some light on the incredible journey many of the pupils we support at Action Tutoring have to make to get to the end of Year 11.
Adam stirs at 6am, carefully slips out of the bed he shares with his siblings and turns on the heater so the flat isn’t ice-cold when the little-ones wake. He realises there isn’t enough left in the fridge for breakfast and dinner and with no money for the rest of the week he decides to skip breakfast. By 6.30am, Adam washes in a cold shower and grabs some rather dirty uniforms from the floor. The laundrette was closed early yesterday so nothing has been cleaned in a while. The neighbours played loud music until 2am last night, like every night, so Adam is still bleary-eyed. At 6.45am, Adam wakes, dresses and rushes his brothers out the door to make the 7.10am bus. Their school is an hour away because they had to move flat in Year 7 and his dad couldn’t read the paperwork for applying to the local school. For three weeks now, his dad has been in hospital with injuries sustained while drunk and his extended family can’t afford the bus journey over to stay with him. Adam is 15.
I haven’t included Adam’s story to provoke pity or guilt. In fact, Adam isn’t based on a real person. But you can rest assured that thousands of pupils just like Adam are out there. I’ve included his story to help highlight some of the very basic barriers to success that our pupils face every single day: arriving to school hungry means he is unable to concentrate in lessons and is more likely to be quick to anger. He is anxious about his dad’s health and has hormones surging around his body which can make it hard for him to stay calm. His clothes haven’t been washed in a couple of weeks so he smells which makes him feel more self-conscious and open to rude comments from his peers. He’s not going to want to draw attention to himself so when he doesn’t understand a formula in maths, he doesn’t put up his hand to ask for help. There isn’t much time for Adam to get his bag organised for school so he routinely forgets his equipment or can’t replace the items that go missing. With loud neighbours and a shared bed, Adam rarely gets homework done on time.
We can’t change Adam’s parents or alter his circumstances but we can give him a few things that help level the playing field with his more privileged peers. We can give him a tutor to support him so he feels comfortable to ask questions, we can give him praise to build his confidence and we can be a positive adult in his life – one that shows a different path for his future than the one he is currently on. So, is it right to judge Adam’s grade 4 in maths GCSE the same as yours, or mine? Is Adam’s achievement any less impressive than the grade 9 pupil in his class?
A lot of the media surrounding exam results day focuses on the achievements of pupils at the top end of the ability or privilege spectrum. I’m not for any moment suggesting that these top achieving pupils don’t deserve the success they have had and worked hard for. What I am challenging is the rhetoric that praise and admiration should be limited to those with the top grades. At Action Tutoring, we champion the Adams of this world because we believe their journey requires just as much resilience, hard work and dedication. I challenge you to join me in shifting today’s praise towards the forgotten pupils who had already overcome plenty of hurdles before even arriving at the school gates.
I am so grateful that more than 800 inspiring tutors gave their time for free last year to help support pupils just like Adam. Action Tutoring’s reach is growing. We are adding Newcastle to our base of operations and can’t wait to spread the impact to more pupils across this country.
To every single one of Action Tutoring’s pupils receiving your results today – well done, we are so proud of you. To all prospective tutors – join us and next year you’ll share in the joy we feel today.
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