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Exam results are the gateway to further education, and in some cases the gateway to companies actually looking at your CV before they throw it in the bin – the new-fangled equivalent of discarding all the envelopes where the stamp isn’t on straight. We can’t just disregard exam results given the way things are these days – but we can be aware of the caveats that surely come with them. 

And there are plenty of these. 

Academically clever people aren’t always very successful or healthy in the workplace – it’s emotional intelligence that determines success at work for the most part, so they say. Exam results tell you nothing about how someone will work in a team, or if they understand what collaboration is (it’s not thinly disguised competition with your peers), or if they have the ability to learn from their mistakes as they go along. They won’t tell you if someone is a perfectionist, half-paralysed by the fear of failure, or a goody-goody whose main skill is providing what people want to hear, or someone who can’t decide anything for themselves without someone else telling them what it is. 

All these people can achieve very good exam results. But do they know how to make good decisions about their life that are authentic to their interests and strengths? Do they have a reflex to tolerance, kindness and inclusion? Does their concept of well-being lead to good long-term health both physical and mental? Are they empathetic? Resilient? Can they listen to other people?

So, if that’s what education can really offer, although it can’t be measured, where is it that these other ‘lessons’ are learned and taught? In 1800 Henry Brandreth published a paper called ‘Work first or play first, some considerations for Eton Masters’ and seems to have set in motion the thinking that led to the later Victorian view that had faith in an almost magical power of sport to provide these things – and it’s not difficult to argue that teamwork, empathy and resilience can be picked up in the big green classroom with your shorts on. 

But not by everybody, quite obviously. Arguably, the higher the level of sport you play the fewer of these lessons seem to stick, until you get to the point where cheating is perfectly acceptable in elite sport as a means of gaining competitive advantage. And not all at the same time: some of these lessons will only be learnt years after the original stimulus, after reflection, failure and hardship have been added to the mix. 

And what of that reflex towards kindness, tolerance and inclusivity? It’s not always to be found on social media, and it’s harder to find in politics than you might expect. Perhaps its strength is in its very invisibility, hidden away in everyday acts of kindness.

In the 1870s, an anonymous Etonian is quoted as saying “we are often told that they taught us nothing at Eton, that may be so, but I think they taught it very well”. Have teachers really been bluffing it since then? One of Eton’s declared aims is for its students to be ‘safe and happy’ – no mention of A grades there, and no need for them either. Perhaps the exam grades take care of themselves – if you have a purposeful, healthy and safe environment in which curious children can thrive.

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