05 September 2022

The Monday Briefing: Hang On In There

The Monday Biefing: Hang On In There

If ever I needed a reminder of why I do what I do - and I very rarely do to reinforce why I enjoy the role so much - it came on Friday.

Having only just departed an assembly with Year 13 on their induction day, delivering what I hoped was a motivational speech on how they all needed to maximise every moment which they had during this academic year, given that it would be their last at the College, I left them with one key point to remember.

I told them that the staff would not have completed their jobs until each and every one of them had made it to a university they’d be happy with - and that it was up to them to be as proactive as possible in order to utilise our help. That may simply consist of making the most of a high standard of teaching within lessons; perhaps ensuring that feedback was acted upon; taking notice of guidance surrounding UCAS Applications. I made it clear that whatever they needed to succeed, it would be there.

Earlier in the week, I’d successfully helped bring to a conclusion a case which showed just how far I, and indeed, everyone at the College would be willing to go in order to make good on such a promise.

What had become somewhat of a ‘saga’ had all begun on A Level results day. Lara, one of our very best students, who had accomplished the impressive feat of being offered two medical places to commence in September, scored an A in Mathematics, an A in Chemistry and a B in Biology, one mark below the grade boundary for the A grade required to successfully be awarded her place at St George’s University of London.

When she came into College on results day, understandably distraught at having missed out by the barest of margins, I quickly got down to the task of calming her down, whilst explaining that we had several options to pursue in order to rectify matters. Given that there was such a small amount required to get to the A grade, I instantly asked Patrick, the Exams Officer, after Lara had given permission, to request her scripts back. Lara was then advised to let St George’s know the situation. After trying to get through to them by phone, a fool's errand given the nature of A Level results day, she went there in person to explain the situation. They would keep her place for the year until August 31st, defer it if she was successful by September 7th, and advised her to reapply if there was no change.

Rick, our Head of Science then started to go through the scripts, and, in consultation with Lara, identified some potential areas where the marking could be queried. They decided that Paper 1 held the best chance of finding the extra mark, then Paper 3, and finally Paper 2.

One by one, the remark requests were sent off, and one by one, in a timely manner, it must be said, they returned, with notice that there had been ‘no change’.

It may have seemed as though it was time to give up at this point, but I knew that there was still a chance. The papers had not been marked down, and there was always the possibility of human error or a harsh application of the markscheme.

Lara came into College, and got to work again, this time on a 4 hour conference call with Rick, who was now visiting relatives in the North West. Together, they created a dossier of potential areas where the marking should be reexamined, with some marked as ‘strong potential’, and others as ‘arguable’. I discussed the document with them, and then, in consultation with the Exams Officer, filed a further appeal, including all of the areas they had identified.

Whilst doing this, I was becoming increasingly conscious of time.

The appeal, though we’d acted as soon as we could, was sent off on August 24th, with the exam board acknowledging receipt on the 25th. With a bank holiday weekend upcoming, this only gave the board a few days to come to a decision. With this in mind, I then composed a letter to St George’s, explaining the fullness of the situation, and urging them to extend deadlines as far as they could.

As it happened, I didn’t need to take this last step - but it was important that I did everything within my power to give Lara the best possible chance. I know that this letter reassured the family, and, in such stressful situations, this is vitally important.

In the intervening period, having studied all of her papers again, she had found further possibilities of marks which could have been awarded. This, too, was sent off to the board.

It wasn’t until August 31st, at around 1.30pm, that I received a letter from the exam board which left me asking myself - ‘well, what does this actually mean now?’ 

It stated, after having gone through each and every question which Lara and the Head of Science had identified, explaining the marking decisions for each, that:

“6(a)(iii) score should be 1.”

“Marking point 1 can be awarded for the second sentence. 

“Giving a total score of 47 an increase of one mark”.

“As a consequence of the further review, I can confirm the following changes:

Paper 2 – 46 to 47 raw marks”

And yet, the letter also stated:

“9BN0 Biology remains a grade B”

On the one hand, we had found the mark we were looking for. On the other hand, the board seemed to be indicating that there had been no change. Hastily, I rushed around the College to find Patrick so that he could call the exam board to ascertain what was true: had it gone up one mark, or had it stayed a B?

The suspense was quite unbearable.

A short call later with a helpful member of the post-results service team, and a check of the updated results for Lara later, and the all important A grade was there, sitting right next to her name. The letter had contained an anomalous sentence.

Patrick was quickly able to scan and send the results to Lara, but not before I had the privilege of making one of the most fulfilling phone calls of my life. Lara’s father answered, and I told him that I had good news. All of the hard work and struggle, in such tumultuous circumstances, had paid off. His daughter was going to medical school.

He replied simply that it was time to throw a party, and that he wanted me to come!

I sat in my chair and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had always been confident that we would get there, even with the deadline being so close. The final jeopardy of confusion around the grade and the boundaries did not help however.

It was incredibly pleasing to see Lara and her family come in to visit staff on Friday. She gave sincere thanks to everyone who had helped, and gave generous gifts to them all as her way of extending the gratitude.

As far as I’m concerned, her conduct throughout the whole episode is a clear indication of the fact that she is an outstanding medical practitioner in the making. She showed conviction and composure during what, I know, was an incredibly stressful time for her. Her dedicated and decisive approach has really impressed me, and she now has everything which she deserves.

There is a wonderful sense of catharsis which comes with watching a student depart to the destination they had their heart set on. For me, and indeed, for all of the wider staff, it is a sense of a job well done - and the strong personal relationships we have with all of our students means that the impact of the journey to get there and the final result - feels so much more powerful and long lasting.

Lara has taken much from this episode. The most important lesson however is to hang on in there, and maintain hope: while there is still a chance, to do everything you can to make it happen - to work with others to bring about what you have always wanted - to never give up.

On a side note, I must say that the detailed and extensive message she wrote in a ‘Thank You’ card for me brought a great deal of realisation personally: of just how much teachers can shape the lives of the students under their care, even when a seemingly small gesture is all that is done; of how important maintaining a sense of positivity is no matter the challenge; of what can be done when people come together to support each other for a greater goal.

It is such a great story with which to start the new academic year. 

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