Blog: A* for effort

25 Aug 2015

The annual events of A level and GCSE results day have been and gone and with it the tweets from schools and colleges proclaiming the percentage of grades A and A* achieved. Students have done well, congratulations to them all, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the achievement was the schools’ not the young people’s.

It made me start to wonder though about how we measure students’ academic success. About the students who worked incredibly hard and achieve a D or an E grade. That doesn’t sound impressive, even a little disappointing perhaps. But for many who were predicted an F or who weren’t expected to pass at all, that represents a real achievement. Not an achievement we’ll see in a media sound bite on the TV news, but still something to be proud of.

Obviously the brightest and the best are always going to be shouted about. ‘Success’ is a societal obsession. Yet it is sad that we don’t have better mechanisms to recognise the ‘distance travelled’ as well as the outcome when it comes to young people.

Some people would say that runs counter to social mobility, where young people all have to compete on a level playing field to propel the brightest to the top, no matter what their background, or class. But the fact remains that it isn’t a level playing field, in fact it’s very steeply sloped.


There’s a parallel here with a programme NYA has recently completed; the Social Action Journey Fund, funded by the Cabinet Office and delivered in partnership with O2 Think Big.

What was innovative about this social action programme was that gave intensive support to disadvantaged young teenagers, aged 13-15 year olds. Youth workers and apprentice youth workers dedicated time to helping young people develop their social action ideas, encouraging them, supporting them and boosting their confidence sufficiently that many went on to run their own projects in their communities. Recent evaluation of the programme indicated that many had benefitted from their involvement– demonstrating improved levels of cooperation, empathy and problem solving and also wellbeing, educational attainment and grit.

Reading Professor Chapman’s evaluation I was struck by how difficult it is to analyse the true impact of a programme like this, as it relies heavily on young people’s self knowledge – something many young people in this age group do not have. In fact it’s even harder than that because what is required is for young people to understand the changes in their abilities, increased confidence etc, and then articulate them, often in written form to fill out an evaluation. That’s really hard and means that for many young people despite overcoming substantial barriers, the full impact of their journey is not understood nor even acknowledged. The same goes for our Employability programme supported by Barclays – we record the outcomes and try hard to capture the changes in confidence and self esteem but it’s not always easy.

Youth workers, teachers and other professionals who work with young people must see this progression every day but it goes largely ignored by rest of us.

The A* students should not get all the plaudits; we’ve got to get better at celebrating the achievements of the harder to reach too.