The coastal town of Hunstanton is one of England’s most deprived places in terms of educational achievement. The BBC went behind the scenes at one of the town’s schools to see how results day worked at a time of Covid-19 and to learn what pupils hoped would come of their grades.
“The results don’t define them, it’s what they choose to do with those results that will define them,” says Kelly Beattie, just moments after seeing her daughter Mia open her results.
Mia is one of 113 pupils at Smithdon High School getting their results today.
The school sits in an area of north west Norfolk ranked in the bottom 10% of England for pupil attainment. Following an Ofsted inspection last October, the school was judged as “requires improvement” – though personal development of pupils was rated “good”.
Mia, having unfurled a list of mainly grades 7 and 8s from the dreaded brown envelope, is happy. She can now look forward to studying A-levels. But the past few months have been a surreal experience for her and the tens of thousands of her fellow GCSE students across the land.
“It felt like everything was unfinished,” she says. “I was a little bit on edge at the start of lockdown but was fine after that.”
Mia, according to head teacher John Hirst, is far from alone in finding this GCSE year a very strange experience.
“Their school career was cut short when exams were cancelled,” he says. “They had done an incredible amount of work before that.
“They didn’t get a prom, they didn’t get a leavers’ assembly, they didn’t get all those usual rites of passage that we like to give our 16 year olds as they leave school.
“So I wanted to do two things. I wanted to give them the ability to celebrate and to show that their achievement has been recognised and to celebrate all of that with them in a Covid-secure environment.”
Today’s results were based on a mixture of teacher assessment and the Ofqual algorithm. If the algorithm provided a higher grade than the assessment, then pupils retained the higher grade.
“In terms of the grades, the government has made a mess of it. It has been very poor and the stress and heartache of students, especially for the A-level students, has been terrible.
“I think the government has finally done the right thing in letting the people who actually know the students give the grades they would potentially get and deserve.”
Education secretary Gavin Williamson, in a message earlier this week, said: “I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve.”
“I’ve done a lot better than I thought I did,” says Grace Bailey. “I got 6s, 7s and 8s – I’m over the moon over that.
“I don’t think any of us expected not to sit exams as we were all in the midst of preparation to do them. While it was a shock, it was a weight off our shoulders.”
She is now heading off to Access Creative College in Norwich to study event production.
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Sarah Parry, her mother, says: “I think she had put in so much hard work and I think it was an anti-climax.
“She did well in her mocks but we have been on tenterhooks wondering how she was going to fare.
“In this school the teachers have been brilliant. They have been really well supported here.
” I just want them to be happy. I’m not a pushy mother, for me, I want them to follow their hearts.”
The futures of the students collecting their results today will be varied, says Matthew Knott, lead teacher for Key Stage Four.
Many will go on to Springwood Sixth Form in nearby King’s Lynn, some will go to Fakenham, some to Cambridge, others to the College of West Anglia.
Some of the students will enter into apprenticeships, including one student who has gained a place with the lorry company Scania.
“If you look at Hunstanton itself, it is on the up,” says Mr Knott,
“We’ve got houses being built, people moving into the area and it is a really nice place to be. The school is improving rapidly.”
Amanda Gibbins, head of school at Smithdon High School, says this year’s cohort of 113 pupils had fared “really, really well”.
“We are really pleased with our results,” she says. “The children have worked so hard and we were in a good position that our children had actually finished their courses pretty much just as lockdown began.”
Since Ofsted’s inspection last year, the school claims a new culture of learning has been brought in that focuses on rewards and positive behaviour.
For particularly strong pieces of work, congratulatory postcards were sent home. Pupils were set the challenge of getting six postcards. Those that managed it – there were 14 of them – had their names put into a draw to win an iPad.
“That’s had a major impact on our year group,” says Ms Gibbins. “We have kept in contact with all of our students during lockdown, trying to keep them reassured.
“They have been anxious and many of them feel upset that they have not had the opportunity to sit the exams and prove what they are capable of.”
Among those students is Nathaniel Linsell.
“I had mixed feelings because I wanted to do the exams because I had worked so long during those three years,” he says.
His studies have been rewarded with a spread of 8s and 9s. He is now set to study maths, further maths, history and French.
“We’ve proved ourselves throughout the course,” he said. “Lockdown was stressful but we got through it.”
His mother Jo Barnes says: “He’s done brilliant but he has worked really, really hard.
“He loves exams, he always has loved exams and he has been preparing for it all the way through.
“I think the school here has improved so much. He is my third child to come through here and we have seen the improvements.
“My view is if they want to do it (achieve) they can do it. There is nothing wrong with this school, the teachers have been fantastic and really supportive.
“I think one day he (Nathaniel) will move away as he wants to study maths at Cambridge University. But we love it here, it is a fantastic place to live.
“OK, as they get older there’s probably not that much here for them but certainly growing up here has been brilliant for all three of my boys.”
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