My Cheesecake take on the ‘A’ level Eton Mess

I’ve kept relatively quiet on the blog front during this pandemic. Primarily because work has taken up most of my thinking brain; but also because the dilemmas and compromises, and work loads and pressures I see across all sectors of society leave me feeling overwhelmed and with a profound sense of gratitude and forgiveness for those who suddenly find themselves having to make difficult decisions with life impacting implications in the context of COVID. I won’t apologise for saying it. These are unprecedented times. Occasionally though, my fury and upset at how our children are being treated in all of this has leaked out – the odd tweet here and there, and one ranty thread that garnered lots of support but disappeared into the Twittersphere; as ranty threads do.  On Thursday, ‘A’ level results day, my distress didn’t just leak, it poured out of me in a way that I thought might never stop. That it happened in a restaurant on a rare night out with my husband was a minor inconvenience. The combination of social distancing and dogs meant we were tucked away pretty much in a room of our own. He went to pay and requested my dessert, which hadn’t yet arrived, as a take out instead.

Many of the days headlines culminated in my outpouring of tears – ‘algorithm’, ‘downgrading’, ‘inflated’, ‘deprived areas hit hardest’ ‘teachers too generous’ to name but a few; as well as individual stories of students and teachers left devastated by the shock results, and dashed hopes. This is our young people we are talking about. The exam cohort who have spent nearly six months in their bedrooms with no structured input from education what so ever. As the first in my family to do ‘A’ levels and go to university, and with an academic and professional career haunted by inferiority complexes, imposter syndrome, guilt at getting paid to do a job I love, guilt at being paid more than a paramedic who attends car crashes and brings people back to life……guilt also that my own son had done fine and got the grades he needed……it all hit a very personal nerve. And just before my cheesecake had arrived. ‘How dare anyone get ideas above their station?’ is how I interpreted the grade adjustment process. And what chance do disadvantaged kids have if that is the prevailing attitude? If I were my own psychologist I would ask me:  ‘What word would be written inside that first tear as it rolled down your cheek?’ Injustice. It is just not bloody fair.

The entire system that judges a child’s worth by a piece of paper on a Thursday in August when they are 18 or 16 is so riddled with unfairness; and I have written about this many times before. Indeed, in lots of countries that do absolutely fine on the education front there are no such external exams; no such days in summer when journalists hover at school gates waiting for the best and worst news story; the highest leap of joy, and the biggest pool of tears; winners and losers paraded for all to see. No such parenting obsessions with school catchments judged by league tables and resultant extortionate house prices exacerbating and perpetuating the class disparities. Really! These are just not a thing! Here is my blog about my own personal experience as a parent in Canada where none of this exists. Why Education in the UK isn’t helping the mental health of children or parents. Kids go to school, the teachers support them to do the best they can based on their strengths, they are assessed on the basis of school work and internal exams, and they leave to go on to their next chosen pathway. It is as straightforward as that.

Kids and teachers in Canada will not be in this sorry mess despite facing the same Covid catastrophe. They can focus on getting back to educating and supporting  children through a global pandemic instead of pouring hours of time into creating a false way of assessing children that tries to replicate a system that isn’t even fair in the first place. The question should be as simple as the one that gets asked in Canada; and as simple to answer because it is based on trust – how do you, a group of teachers who know these students best, think this individual young person was going to do had a global pandemic not come along and interrupted everything? Graduate? or Graduate with honours? or could do with another year as struggling to achieve the required level and likely to be even more set back by months of nothing? Easy. Not perfect, of course. But the alternative seems to have been reduced to a ‘computer says no’ approach.

In the UK we have a system that is so invested in it’s own hype it has missed the entire point of its one strength. An independent assessment of a child’s ability based on their individual performance on a specific day is exactly that. And only that. If they don’t sit the exam, then you can’t award a grade as though they did. You need to do something else. Unprecedented I know. But these are unprecedented times after all. So what can, and should we do instead? Ask the teachers; trust the teachers; assume that a young person’s chosen next path isn’t wildly out of synch with what they are realistically capable of and should therefore be supported to pursue. Acknowledge this is a global pandemic and everything is different this year. Tell them they are the Covid cohort and have had it tougher than any generation you know. Say you will err on the side of giving them the best possible chance in life. Acknowledge they will need it more than most as the impact of this pandemic on their futures is already a major concern……And, most importantly, use this debacle as an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and review the whole system. It could even be an interesting, if unintended experiment. Does this revised approach really result in a radically different outcome at the next stage given all the hurdles our children have already had to cross beforehand? And the many more they have ahead of them.

A couple of hours after we left the restaurant and I had cried it all out of my system I felt ready for my cheesecake. And it was as delicious as it looks.  A reminder to all our young people that intense feelings pass, things will feel different with a bit of perspective, and that their time will come. But first those in charge have to take control. Enough is enough. This cohort deserve an apology and a plan that undoes the harm that has been caused. And future generations deserve a long hard look at a system that really does seem to be based on a bizarre conviction that your future worth is dictated by your A level and GCSE results, even when they have been generated by an algorithm that you had no control over what so ever.


Hooray. Centre Assessed Grades will now be awarded. Let’s hope important lessons have been learnt.

2 thoughts on “My Cheesecake take on the ‘A’ level Eton Mess

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  1. As my reading of that ended, I said aloud ‘Absolutely!. What a beautifully articulated piece, perfectly capturing the compressed rage of a generation of parents and young people. Where and when doe the madness of all this interference and incompetence end!? This piece of writing and this voicing of a shared exasperation was so very welcome a read. Thank you for it.


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