Hard working student or smart working students GCSE and A-level

Having two teenagers who are both in the final year of GCSE and A-level respectively, means the notion of “hard work vs smart work” is a constant topic of conversation in my household… If you ask anyone which is better: smart work or hard work, the answer is a no-brainer, as the Americans say!

My son and I have completely different points of view about the importance of hard work. When he got the result of his GCSEs last year, as expected and unlike in all the other subjects, he did not get the top grade in English Literature. He missed it by two grade points.  His position had always been that he was not prepared to put in that extra work that would allow him to secure Grade 9. When his cousin’s results came out this summer and she got 12 Grade 9s, including all the subjects that are perceived as difficult,  I tried to highlight her achievement to my son. The fact that his cousin did so well and was in the top 20 or so students in the whole country. Despite having to travel for about four hours (in total) to and from school every day,   she was still able to put in the hard work. Of course, that reignited the debate between my son and I again, I’m sure you can guess where our argument/conversation on this often leads to, but I will try and avoid getting into the hot potato debate of nature vs nurture here. I’ll come back to this point again towards the end, with a light-hearted story.

We all know that, if you are in the military, you can find yourself in a position of having to decide or act on matters of life and death. This could be for yourself, or worse, for your men, women or colleagues. I concur that education – including learning, training and getting qualifications and all that, is not a matter of life and death. However, getting it right can be the difference between a miserable life and a more enjoyable one. Nevertheless, permit me to use a couple of quotes from the military. 

Here are two quotes from Google about the military.

  1. Discipline is the soul of an army. There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.
  2. The best Generals, the Germans found, came from the clever and lazy; the best staff officers emerged from the clever and hard-working; the stupid and lazy could be made useful as regimental officers; but the stupid and hard-working were a menace, to be disposed of as soon as possible.  They are dangerous! – my own edit.

Getting the balance between nurture and nature is a delicate one and, as I’m not an expert, I do not know the answer. What I do know in my over 30 years of being in the secondary education system is that you do not have to be a genus to achieve A* in any subject. Whilst I would be indulging in falsehood to claim that everyone is capable of obtaining the top grades in every subject, I’ve witnessed young people of about average ability doing very well at GCSE and even A-level. Sadly, I’ve also seen very bright young people ending up with mediocre exam grades – or perhaps failing exams all together.

Teaching in schools, on the whole, is so much better these days, partly because teachers are under greater level of scrutiny. We hear about constantly improving GCSE and A-level exam results. However, despite the huge volume of resources available, the education divide remains still too wide. The education attainment divide is still largely along demographic lines, but if you care to dig deeper into it  psychographics play  a bigger role. I am not going to go into detail here but what I will say is that is not just about parental income or being middle class and all that. Brampton Manor School (the so-called Eton of East London) is a testament to that. Another example is – Mayflower School in the East End of London. This school, which has so many of the typical challenges that are faced by inner city schools, outperformed almost all top private prep schools where parents are now paying about £15,000 a year.

It’s always the parent’s fault – isn’t it!

Here is the light-hearted story that I promised you earlier.

A boy came home with his school report in which he has done very badly in all his subjects He then said: “father, can I ask you a question?” The father responded “yes, of course, go ahead”. The question was: “what is the reason behind my bad exam performance, is it nature or nurture?”

Never mind the cheekiness of this question. The thing is that we parents are just a catalyst in the chemical reaction that results in exam grades as the product. This chemical reaction takes many years to occur, and, according to my simplified Chemistry definition, a catalyst. has to be present for a chemical reaction to take place successfully, but the catalyst does not get used up in the process. The difference is that we as parent often get used up.  Never mind the financial cost, which can be a lot; the physical and, more importantly,   emotional energy we expend can be even more costly.

As I’m not an expert, I do not have a solution on how to motivate a teenager and get them away from gaming and social media. What I’d say is that it is a constant battle, and we have to remain engaged with the teenager. There is not one specific way to solve the problem, but it is important to be aware of it and to keep at it; constantly having the conversation and adopting different strategies.

The fact of the matter is that so many teenagers do not have the discipline to study, or, when studying, to work and focus in a productive way so that they get more out of the time they put in.

Help is at hand!

One thing that we did at Excel this   summer  was to organise some sort of study sessions during the last couple of weeks of the summer holiday. In those sessions, the idea was to use scholars from Imperial College to supervise learning sessions at the British Library in St Pancras. It turned out in the end to be teaching sessions for those scholars, as they actually taught the students. What the parents liked about those sessions was that it did not cost any money to them but it cost the children their time, as they had to get their act together, get off their devices and go and do some learning!

We are hoping to repeat the same thing during the coming school holidays, so watch this space!

Clarification: Our modus operandi at Excel involves using professional teachers for our courses, and not university undergraduates to do the teaching. We usually use scholars for a different purpose (scholars are graduate and undergraduate students – usually from Imperial College or UCL). Scholars are used to supervise sessions like  enhancement and homework assignments. It must be said that, despite the fact that these are usually not sessions that parents pay for, the scholars are paid.

However, we have on occasions used some highly qualified people, but without a PGCE or even QTS, as teachers. They have been some of the very best teachers one can find anywhere. You may say this is imitating the very best of private school, where they are not so bothered about a teacher having PGCE when they are recruiting. I have got a PGCE myself, and I advocate having one, as it is safer that way. However, there are people without PGCE, BEd or any form of QTS who are outstanding teachers.

 Below is a link to a couple of past blogposts with related material