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Exams: the results are in - what's next?

Your child receiving their GCSE or A-level results is a milestone moment in any household, and the weight of expectation can make everyone feel that it’s the be-all-and-end-all. Whether they do better than expected, meet their target grades or don’t achieve the hoped-for results, it’s worth remembering that, although education is important and it’s satisfying to see hard work rewarded, there are options open to everybody regardless of the outcome. What may be considered ‘failure’ may just be a need to calmly reassess the future.

Your role in helping your child to shape their future

The first question parents should always ask themselves is… 

Do you understand the options open?

It may seem like just last summer, but a lot has changed since you left education, not only in what children learn at school and how subjects are taught, but in courses available in further education and what young people entering the workplace for the first time can expect. Advice has to be based on the latest information, not just on your past experience. If you aren’t sure how best to advise your child, that’s fine too. A conversation with their teachers might help, or if they are thinking ahead to higher education, then researching course options together will keep them motivated. Also consider that, although you have spent their lifetime encouraging and advising, they may have firm views about their future studies or career, and even where you feel you are steering them away from bad decisions, this should be done in a supportive way. Arguments won’t help anybody!

Whether you’re confident in their decisions and understand their future plans or you’re helping to research options, these general pointers should keep you focussed.

GCSEs

This year saw the added complication of a new grading system for a few core subjects, which students and parents alike have had to understand. Now that the results are in, you may be considering the following scenarios if your child did:

  • As well as expected. If this is the case, then you, they and the school had a good grasp of their talents and aspirations, and have probably already agreed a plan of where they go from here. But if all the focus has been on getting through the exams and your child really needs some help in choosing what happens next, then UCAS is a great online resource that lays out all the options. 
  • Not as well as expected. There could be many reasons for this. Exams are stressful, and some children handle the pressure better than others. There are several options to consider. Perhaps they would benefit from resitting some of the exams, especially if they haven’t secured the results they needed to take A-level options they had considered? Another option, if your child is less academic but skilled in other areas, is to consider an apprenticeship (see The Apprenticeship Guide for details) or alternative qualifications such as BTECs or NVQs that can be more career-focussed and help your child enter into their chosen profession. The route through A-levels and then university isn’t appropriate for everyone and may not even be the best option for some careers. 
  • Better than expected. Although this sounds a great place to be in, it can bring with it uncertainty. Will they want to reappraise their further education now that they have more options?
  • Better than expected in some subjects but worse than expected in others. Here the conversation could be around whether or not your child has a realistic view of where their strengths really lie. (Do you think they are choosing the best options for A-level, which is a large step up in terms of academic rigour, or will they potentially struggle if they take the A-levels they haven’t done as well in, where other subjects may suit them better?) This may be a difficult conversation to have, and you may wish to speak to their teachers or careers advisors – or at least ensure that they do – before any firm commitment is made. It’s better to be frank and honest at this stage, because taking an unsuitable A-level and seeing them struggle through for two academic years will lead to more complex problems.

A-levels

How did your child do?

  • As well as expected. Had they developed firm ideas about what they wanted to do before taking their exams? If you and their teachers are reasonably confident with their choice(s) then you’re well placed to support them into the workplace or higher education. However well your child has done, sometimes we all need a bit more advice, and the National Careers Service can be a useful resource to understand what options are open.
  • Not as well as expected. There may be reasons why their grades were lower than predicted, and although this can seem like a major setback, a pragmatic approach serves everybody best. Did they have their heart set on a vocational subject such as veterinary science or dentistry that requires good results in specific subjects? If so, if they narrowly missed out on achieving the necessary grades, taking an extra year to resit the exams is a good option to consider. If your child is focussed on achieving their dream career path, they will see it as a second chance, and not as a year wasted. If they’ve fallen considerably below the required grades, then helping them to consider alternatives, however painful, may be a better option. There are plenty of science and humanities courses with great career prospects that don’t require top A-level grades for entry. If they had been considering higher education but their results will make it difficult to get into a college or university, then other options such as studying for a NVQ or seeking out apprenticeship opportunities (The Apprenticeship Guide is a great starting point) may be a more appropriate and appealing choice for them. If they are set on going to university, another option to consider is studying for a Higher National Diploma (HND). Roughly equivalent to the first two years of a three-year degree, HNDs can be studied full- or part-time instead of a BA or BSc, or as a stepping stone to entry onto a degree course, depending on the ambitions of your child.
  • Better than expected at A-level. Is your child happy with their choice of university and course of study, or with the apprenticeship or route into a career? If so, then that’s fine. It can be tempting, as a parent, to try to nudge them towards courses that reflect the grades they have received, or even into more years of study, but subjects like medicine and architecture that require high grades are vocational, and if they haven’t expressed a leaning towards them before, it’s probably not the right course for them, even if they have the academic talent to succeed. Remember, their university course will help to determine their professional life, so applying pressure where there is resistance can lead to resentments further down the line – especially if things go wrong. If they choose to enter the workplace over higher education, then they may never look back, or they may apply for a degree a few years further down the line when they feel the timing is more appropriate for them.
  • Better in some subjects but worse in others. If they are considering enrolling in higher education, would they be better off looking through prospectuses again and reconsidering the subject they choose to specialise in? In this uncertain situation, looking at the facts and being pragmatic is the best approach. Careers advice may be crucial, either from school or from a local learning centre. The worst thing to do is to make a snap decision, rush through clearing and enrol on a course for the sake of getting into university. It may be better for your child to take a year out, gain some life and work experience, and reapply for university the following year when they have a much better idea of what they wish to specialise in.

General advice

Is their CV up to date?

Everyone needs a good CV, and there are plenty of websites and resource books devoted to writing the perfect résumé, or there may be courses at school or in local learning centres. Parents are well-placed to act as a fresh pair of eyes, and there are some obvious things that everyone can check for:

  • Spelling and grammar. Mistakes in a CV are off-putting to potential employers, no matter what the position is for.
  • Relevance. Have they included all of their qualifications and skills?
  • Contact details. Are their email address and telephone number correctly stated so that employers can get in touch?
Interview technique

This skill is essential to everyone. Does your child know how to conduct themselves in an interview situation? Do they have appropriate formal wear? This is important whether they are joining the job market or facing a university selection process. Most schools will help students to practise interviews, usually by inviting in experienced people, perhaps from local businesses, to provide a mock scenario, but these may be voluntary and may fall outside of normal school hours. Make sure you know when and where mock interviews are being held and encourage your child to take part. They may seem daunting, but the real thing will be even more daunting, especially with no previous exposure.

Remember the timeless British saying...

Keep calm and carry on, and if your child is feeling anxious or angry, don’t add to it, because heated discussions will only make things worse. The situation may be tense until you have talked through a plan of action together and know what options are realistically open. Uncertainty and not knowing are the worst feelings. Once everyone knows what’s happening next, you’ll all feel a lot happier and calmer.

Even if they didn’t do as well as perhaps they could have done, so long as they worked hard, reward them and be proud of their achievements. A life’s lesson that hard work is rewarded is a good one to learn as early as possible.

Good luck!

Reviewed: February 2018

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