Life & Culture

My life was changed by a GCSE shock

Rosa Doherty wasn't expecting anything great from her GCSE results. Then she opened the Envelope of Doom


It doesn’t matter what you get,” my mum said to me the morning I was due to collect my GCSE results. “You can always do them again.” This let me know she didn’t expect much and I would be having another go at them if I did badly, whether I liked it or not.

Fifteen years later, I know her words came from a place of love and fearful anticipation about my future, but also a place of parental anxiety and inner shame.

On my GCSE morning my mum was not only trying to prepare me, but herself, for disappointment.

Unlike her friends, beaming with pride about their high-achieving angels, she was scratching her head asking how she had landed a moody school avoider instead.

She was coming to terms with the realisation that no matter how much was spent on tutors, or bribery trips to Brent Cross, nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to get me a maths or a science GCSE.

Luckily, 16-year-old me woke up that morning not having the slightest care about my results.

Thanks to raging teenage hormones it was pretty impossible to get me to care about anything that wasn’t spending time with my boyfriend, shopping, or sleeping.

I had spent the past year stubbornly attending the lessons that I loved, with the teachers who encouraged me, while ferociously avoiding the ones that I hated, where the teachers seemed to be indifferent to me. Time that should have been spent learning maths and science was far more enjoyable at home, five minutes from school, making tuna pasta bake and watching Trisha. To this day, I think the education provided by daytime TV is the reason I am so fascinated by society, people, and their quirks.

On results day, I got myself to school and opened the Envelope of Doom. I wasn’t upset by the Ds in maths and science — in truth I was impressed I’d managed even those.

But the real shock came when I spotted my A for history among letters for other subjects slightly further down the alphabet.

I wiped the sleep from my eyes, (literally, as I had only woken up five minutes before). When I looked down at the page again, it was still there! I wasn’t dreaming.

Not even my dad, a history teacher, who spent weeks revising with me, had imagined I could achieve that.

“I got an A!” I squealed down the phone to my mum, as I dragged myself home. “You got a what,” she said, bewildered.

“An A! I got an A!” I said over and over again in a pitch probably only dogs could hear.

When I walked through the front door, my mum was there anxiously waiting to discover if I’d made a mistake. We burst into hysterical laughter when she realised it was true.

Whatever we were expecting that moment to be, it melted away and was replaced with an entirely unknown euphoria, for both parent and child.

The phone rang and rang with grandparents, friends and family, all prepared to give the same commiseration speech.

But once they heard about my A, they were all stunned into silence.

Today, a lot of people will be mulling over the aftermath of GCSE results, analysing the bad marks, and planning re-marks and retakes.

But what my results taught me was not how OK it is to fail (we can’t all be above average) but how fun it can be to succeed. That feeling kick-started a transformation in my attitude to education.

Every young person, no matter their academic ability, should have the chance to experience it. I ended up at a top university studying English and absolutely loving it.

I look back on my early education and take full responsibility for my teenage laziness but not for the teachers and people who entrenched my lack of confidence.

What young people need, whatever the level of their ability, is recognition of their strengths, nurturing of their talents and the confidence that they can get an A in something.

So, if you’re talking to a young person this week about their results, please do it with a huge dose of encouragement. Don’t dwell on the D grades, look for the things you can celebrate.

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