Not a lot of people know this, but I was meant to leave school at sixteen and go to agricultural college to study ‘land based industries’. It was all organised, but then something happened that changed everything: I did way better in my GCSEs than anyone was expecting. Not just a bit better, but the difference between the predicted ‘E’s & ‘F’s and the ‘A’s and ‘B’s I got – except in maths which I got a ‘D’ in, a grade I was very happy with given that I hadn’t been in a mainstream maths group since year 7.
I’m dyslexic and dyspraxic and I’ve always struggled with exams. I also have tics and lots of obsessive behaviours that made completing work under timed conditions extremely challenging. In particular I found it hard to ignore mistakes, so any error I spotted would require me to write the whole piece out again from the start! A finished piece of work would often have been written out multiple times. While my teachers understood and supported many aspects of my neurodiversity, there were also a lot of things that were less obvious to them, like the difficulties obsessions posed when I was writing, or the physical discomfort of trying to be still.
I was in the bottom set for almost all subjects and while my coursework was often good and my teachers felt I was quite bright, I just didn’t understand how to learn reliably, and I definitely didn’t know how to sit an exam.
Then something remarkable happened – six weeks before our exams, at the point where teachers were starting to do revision sessions and just before we went on study leave, something clicked in my brain. It wasn’t that I suddenly knew more about my subjects but that I suddenly understood that exams were just memory tests of what you were supposed to have learnt. I also realised that the types of questions asked were relatively predictable.
I distinctly recall the mix of bewilderment, frustration and excitement that I felt: ‘Why hadn’t anyone told me that I just needed to remember things?’. The way I was taught in school never made things stick in my head, but I knew that I could make myself remember stuff by utilising my obsessive tendencies. So, six weeks before I sat my exams, I did the following:
• I made a giant poster for each subject with essential information on it. I stuck these around my home and wouldn’t allow myself to walk past any of them without reading the whole thing.
• I made colourful revision cards for each subject with words and drawings.
• I borrowed my dad’s voice recorder and made recordings of my revision cards that I would then listen to on long walks with my dog – I found it much easier to concentrate while I was on the move.
• I talked to a teacher I trusted about exam techniques and realised that what my work looked like didn’t matter because it would be marked by an examiner who’d know I had specific learning difficulties.
• I made myself a revision timetable and rewarded myself for following it with motivating food, drink and activities.
Up until my actual GCSEs I’d never got to the end of an exam paper – I’d always run out of time. I needed the focus of the actual exams to understand that I could develop ways of learning that worked for my brain – even if they looked very different from how my peers were preparing.
So, with my surprise results in hand I had more options available to me than I had ever imagined. Instead of going to college at sixteen, I decided I’d stay on at school and take ‘A’ levels.
My interest in drawing and painting grew from a passing hobby to a consuming passion. My new-found confidence in my academic abilities held steady and I left school with two ‘A’s and a ‘B’ at A level – something my family and teachers would have thought very unlikely just a few years before.
I’m sharing this with you because today is GCSE results day and the class of 2020 will be receiving their results under extraordinary circumstances. The global pandemic has disrupted their learning and their lives at a crucial time.
Loads has been written about why the system being used to grade students this year is unfair and inconsistent, and the use of mock exam results has rightly been criticised. My mocks were the first exams I’d ever taken, and you need time and practice to learn how to deal with them. Disabled and neuro-diverse students are particularly likely to be disadvantaged by any system that’s not based on teachers’ appraisals and knowledge. Had I been due to take my exams this year there would have been no way I would have ended up with any GCSEs.
At the time you take your GCSEs they feel like the most important things in the world. I painfully retook maths several times because my school convinced me that not having a C would hold me back. But in reality, no-one’s ever asked about my maths grade. GCSEs matter because they’re the starting point for finding out where your strengths and interests lie.
I would like to offer my solidarity with all those receiving results today – we know the system’s flawed and that you’ll have had to endure additional pressure and stress. Please have confidence in yourself and reflect with your teachers, families and friends about what you want to do next.
Exactly what my GCSEs were was way less important than the things I learnt about myself while taking them.