Eltham Headmaster opens his GCSE results with students

Eltham College has continued to see a rise in GCSE results with a second year of record beating results achieved. A remarkable 70% of students achieved 8 A*-A (9/8/7) grades or more. 37% of grades awarded were a 9 with 67% being grade 9/8, an increase of 30% from five years ago. 

The College has continued to have strong results in English, Maths and the Sciences with 95% of grades in English awarded A*-A and 90% for both Maths and Sciences. As well as, impressive results in the Creative subjects with over a third of students in Art, Music and Drama achieving the top grade of 9. 

I was delighted today to be part of the group of Eltham College students who were waiting excitedly to receive their GCSE results. For those in attendance these results were the culmination of months of hard work and revision across a range of subjects, whereas I had taken just one GCSE subject.  

Whilst I got a 9 for my French GCSE and was very pleased with my result, I was overjoyed to see the happiness and often relief on the faces of our students once they opened their results envelope and realised just how much they had achieved. By taking myself outside my comfort zone and into the classroom once more, I had a new found appreciation of the anxiety and pressure it is to be a student today.  

As you may know, last year I decided I would take advantage of the school’s planned new language facilities to learn a second language.  When I discussed it with my family, the general consensus was that I would be mad to attempt it.  

After I sat my French GCSE, I was asked a number of times, “So, how was it?” The short answer is that I have loved it.  The longer one is that I have found the whole experience challenging and hugely insightful. It was more than a little strange to sit in a classroom alongside Year 11 students feeling that I should be setting an example whilst frequently realising that they knew more than I did or that they had revised harder for the vocab test. But it was also very good for me, helping me to think more deeply about the experience of our students.  

For the past 30 years, my learning and teaching have been primarily concerned with concepts and ideas; most of the knowledge I draw on day-to-day is either deeply embedded or easy to look up. In that respect, learning a new vocabulary and grammar has been like learning to walk again after weeks in a plaster cast; progress has been uneven. One minute, I would think I had nailed the use of the subjunctive or a counter-intuitive word order, only to realise in the next that that I had forgotten even basic adjectival agreements.  

As someone who taught for over 25 years, and still reads student reports, I have often wondered why a student who does very well in homework exercises goes on to under perform in a test or exam. Now, as a mature learner, I have realised that, when I have done well in homework translations, I have done so with the benefit of a dictionary and other reference books. I now see far more clearly than I did at 16 that frequent, quick assessment is essential to real progress, even if it makes the student (whatever their age!) feel uncomfortable. 

And I have felt uncomfortable at times. If you have read Doug Lemov’s Teach like a Champion, you will know his assertion that one of the characteristics of the best teachers is an expectation of ‘No Opt Out’ from their students. It can be painful at times, but it is very necessary. I had forgotten the desperate hope that that I would not be called upon in class because I was not sure of the answer and did not want to be exposed. And I have been able to see the same concern cross the faces of the other students sitting around me. Then you are asked and, all of a sudden, the words take on a misty appearance…then…calm down… remember what you do know… and gradually an answer arrives. It is not always right, but it has been good both to learn from correction and to empathise once more. 

Perhaps one difference from my schooldays has been that, as I have struggled to understand the reason for yet another exception to a linguistic rule, I have also sat in awe at the quality of questions from other students as they grappled with the grammar. I have been struck by how hard students have worked to relate the language to their other learning and how genuinely they have striven for understanding as they have bounced off each other and exchanged ideas. It has been good to experience once more the benefits and importance of learning together with others in a classroom and the richness that comes from a range of diverse insights. Participating in that environment as a student as opposed to as an observer, I have been reminded of how important it is for teachers to create a culture where it is safe for students to answer questions and to take academic risks. I have certainly been grateful for the quality of teaching which I have received from our hardworking Modern Languages department. 

Finally, I have actually learned some French this year! I will now never forget how to conjugate choisir after failing to remember the third person plural (present tense) in the exam. (I know, a basic error!). Why learn a language when, as I am often reminded, everyone speaks English? Certainly not for the sake of knowing how to conjugate verbs. Ultimately, it has provided the forgotten pleasure of seeing things differently. And the French do think differently. They are more philosophical, less pragmatic and their more formal view of relationships is rooted and reflected in their language.   

Will I continue as a language learner? Absolutely! The reminders this year of the joys, anxieties and pressures of being a student are not a bad thing for a Headmaster to experience on a regular basis. So, A level French students may find that I join their lessons from time to time and I may even bow to family pressure to pick up some Norwegian as well. 

But I must admit that today I too felt a sense of relief that it was over and that it was now time to celebrate our collective GCSE achievements together.