My Exam Results Postmortem

Press Photos from A Level and GCSE Results Days.  A time for celebration.
Press Photos from A Level and GCSE Results Days. A time for celebration.

My Exam Results Postmortem.

Don’t you just love exam results days? I always have….all the anticipation, the nerves, the agonising wait and then, finally….the big reveal.  Jubilation and despair and everything in between….wrapping up years of endeavour in one big moment. It’s an emotional field day.

When that email arrives from the Exams Officer carrying the thousands of mini verdicts on students’ achievements, the first thing I do is to look at the overall headline. As Head, this where I brace myself…’s either going to be something to celebrate or a disappointment…there’s not much in between.  The details come later but for now  I just want to know which mode to be in.  Buzzing and celebratory or sober and reflective.

Next, I dive into the Physics column.  Rightly or wrongly, as a teaching Headteacher,  my own students’ results matter more to me than any others… This is a big moment.  I’ve always felt that my students’ results are also mine.  If they’ve done well, I feel fully justified in basking in the glory.  But, as I scan down the list, every dropped grade is a knife through the heart.  I feel responsible….my performance is laced into every grade….  I’m not preaching here; this is simply how I have always felt about it.  I know many teachers who feel the same way.

So, rather than talk in general terms, let me share how it went this year.  I had two exam classes…one A Level, shared with a colleague and one GCSE class I taught myself for two years.

Y13 A Level Physics Class

I loved teaching this class and I felt very positive going into the exams that we’d put things in place for a strong set of results.  However, the grades didn’t match the potential. I was disappointed: 5As, 9Bs, 3Cs and an E from a class where at least 12 could have gained an A and the E doesn’t do justice to the student’s ability at all.

Now, straight away I need to be careful.  I have no intention of doing my students down; they are all very talented young people and, thankfully, they all have secured university places or have a concrete plan of action for their next career steps. A B is an excellent A Level grade that leads to great university courses.  But, collectively, the grades fell short of what I’d hoped for and what I expected – that’s the point. There was the potential for them to be much better.   Initially I felt pretty gutted. For them and, yes, for me! Breaking this down, the grades fall into a few categories:

Expected grades:  The five As, a couple of Bs and Cs were expected.  No surprise. Great. Phew!

Step-Up Disappointments:  Students who were knocking on the door of an A or B and who I felt would deliver that step-up in the final exams.  However, they were not solidly in the bag at any point… I just hoped and expected.

Step-Down Disappointments: Students who routinely secured A or B grade work throughout the course but who, against all expectations, dropped down in the final modules.

So, with more than the expected number of disappointments, I went into postmortem mode. I have had a meeting with my colleague who shared the class with me and we’ve considered all the variables:

1. Was it the exams?  We felt the papers were fair and students’ immediate feedback had been reasonably positive. We felt we’d covered all the material and students should have had a good chance of doing well – in theory.  We’ve looked at the component breakdown to see if there is a pattern  – but so far there isn’t a strong one.  Students in all groups did broadly as well in each component…so that’s a bit baffling.  It would be a lot easier if one paper had been a disaster – but that wasn’t the case. The next step is to interrogate the data question by question, using the OCR website, to see if particular questions were poorly answered… although initial investigations haven’t shown us anything obvious, we’ll look further.

2. Was it the students?  Did they just underperform?  If so, what factors might have contributed? Could or should we have spotted anything that we didn’t Could we have offered more support? Should we have expected more from them in terms of effort and precision, running up to the exams? How did their Physics grades compare with their others? Here there is a mixed picture.  Without getting into a technical residuals analysis, it is clear that the results are not massively worse for the group in Physics than elsewhere – but they are certainly slightly lower.  Case by case, some outcomes are hugely disappointing, some are actually better than we’d hoped. I still feel proud of them because they were enthusiastic and hard-working…. I don’t see the exam results as a full reflection of their talents.  That’s the frustrating thing.

3. Was it the teaching? Was it us? Did we miss things out or rush through certain topics? Did we teach certain topics as well as we could? It’s the first time I taught the course…and I know for sure that I will do it better next time. Did we give enough sharply focused feedback on exam questions? My feeling is that this is an area I could have done better in for sure.  Are we as in tune with students’ real levels of understanding in each topic area as we might be… or do we need to do more formalised formative assessment to determine this throughout the course?  I know we can do more here.

4. Is it the course? Do we provide enough guidance? Do our materials allow students to know exactly what they need to know for the exam? Is there anything about this particular syllabus that is a fundamental barrier to success?  It suits some students but can be rather woolly and opaque for others…it’s a big decision to change, without any certainty that students would do better. We’ll explore but not rush into anything.

We’ve asked all these questions. We’ve also considered whether we simply expected too much? Not every straight A student at GCSE will get an A at A level..far from it. Perhaps we have projected our optimism and data-driven expectations onto students for whom a B was always more realistic than an A.  I don’t like to think that way…it doesn’t sit well, but there may be some truth in it. Or it could be an excuse.

So.. there you go.  My A level postmortem is rather inconclusive.  The process of asking the questions is vital as part of my professional learning, not least because I am teaching another Y13 class the same material this coming year.  Most of all, it matters because if you feel students deserved better, then you owe it to them to work out how things might have been different.

Y11 IGCSE Physics Class

After the hand-wringing over A levels, my GCSE results have just been pure joy:  From 22 students, 19 gained an A*, two gained an A and one gained a B.  The B was always on the cards so these results are far in excess of anything I’d imagined. To put this in context, for the school as a whole, 45% of grades were A* and 84% A or A* – these are our second highest figures.  So, I’d expect similar outcomes…but for so many to have gained A*s is fabulous.

Of course, I could just sit around congratulating myself… but the postmortem is still important.  Is this a reproducible result?  What factors influenced the success?

Importantly for me, this is the class that has pioneered the co-construction approach that I have written about and spoken about at numerous CPD events and TeachMeets. All students contributed to planning the course, to teaching lessons, marking work, conducting demonstrations and organising practical work.  They produced revision materials and even took a cover lesson one day when I was absent.

I always said that my hopes were for the class to do as well as any other, having engaged in sharing the planning and teaching of the course themselves. Well, I am delighted that we have accomplished that goal.  Of course I cannot say that they did well because of the co-construction approach… but I can be certain that it didn’t do any harm.  Along the way, they have learned some additional skills and gained confidence in ways that can’t be measured.

Taran's Plan. The Y11 course outline produced by one of the students.
Taran’s Plan. The Y11 course outline produced by one of the students.

Here’s a crucial reference point: The students gained identical marks in their Chemistry IGCSE, grade for grade, student for student, taught by other teachers.  So, undoubtedly the general disposition and ability of the class was exceptional.  Having spoken to some students about this, they feel that the co-construction gave them confidence and made them work for each other, providing materials and so on, in ways that may have influenced them more widely.  That can’t be proven of course; I’m not making any grand claims.  However, as I always said, if the learning process can be this engaging and rewarding, AND we get great exam results… that’s all the evidence I need to know that it’s a good way to teach and to learn. In due course I will conduct a student survey to gain their perspective on the whole process.

Another important factor is that this was a linear IGCSE exam with terminal exams. For my students, it works well to gear up for a final push, learning all the content at once having had two years to study it. I don’t think they would have done as well with a series of modules.  Also, the course has plenty of maths in it and they like that too. So, this style of exam plays to their strengths.  I don’t call that easy…because the questions are more rigorous and demanding than the course we used before.  But the style of assessment works for them, without question.

So,.. that’s the postmortem done.  Time to look ahead. I’ll be teaching Year 9 this year, in a co-construction style, and I have a Year 13 class that is going to get a sharper, more focused experience with a lot more feedback from me.  Let’s see what happens this time.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Tom, and congratulations to you and to your students. At A level, I always felt that the key thing to focus on was whether students had got the grades they needed to realise their dreams for the next stage. The most important statistic for me was the % who got into their first choice destination/course (if they were continuing their studies) – it was usually 80% plus. Then we checked that the proportion who had got into their second choice were content with that, and THEN we spent much of the following week supporting and guiding the remaining c4% who needed to make plans with which they were happy.


    • Thanks Jill. That’s the same for us too. Destinations matter more than grades in the end – although they are obviously connected. This post is about me as a teacher.. so here the emphasis is on my own students’ grades above all else. In truth I’ve spent more time since looking at the nitty gritty of each department, each student and there is a lot to celebrate at A level.. Most of the students in my class were just thrilled to be going to their first choice Uni..even if their physics grade wasn’t the best it could have been.


      • Absolutely, Tom – I do understand the teacher’s perspective as well as the head’s. The fact that you still teach exam classes helps you to do that. I wonder how many heads out there do these days….


  2. Great read as always Tom – but when do our (understandable) emotions surrounding our students’ grades translate into elements of spoon feeding/teaching to the test, shaping practice in ways that will ultimately not be good for the intellectual or academic development of young people? I have read enough on your blog to know that this doesn’t apply to you, but my thoughts are that whilst many teachers continue to obssess over grades being the ultimate measure of good teaching (and I am not saying that it isn’t a part of it), the tests themselves, rather than the subject, will be the tail that wags the dog.

    I have written about my disillusionment of using my classes grades to assess my own progress here: and then, realising I wasn’t offering any answers tried to put together some more wholsesome criteria to improve teaching with my exam classes:

    Don’t get me wrong, I know all too well the vital importance of grades and do not suggest any form of not bothering to prepare students for their life-defining letters, but I suppose I am still left with the question of where to draw that line between preparing and teaching to the test. Your honest account of the emotional state of the teacher receiving “poor grades / great grades” (and I think we all go through it to some extent) suggests that whilst some, like yourself, will still push on teaching and learning for a greater purpose, I think so many others are perpetuating a culture in which learning is presented to students as the series of hoops to jump through, right from the dominant discourse and language surrounding work, and our own displays of emotional attachment to grades.

    As a long time campaigner against spoon-feeding (as I am sure you are) it is a question that really intrigues me. I think your suggestion of abandoning grades for percentages/marks would be a great start to get rid of boundary warfare!


  3. My first set of GCSE results, 27% got their target, I cried for 2 days. Feel like a complete failure in my work, which at the moment is pretty much my whole life. Not sure what to do now but I am dreading going back to school, so embarrassed. Any advice?


    • My advice is to talk to someone about it ASAP, sharing your disappointment, and then ask to engage in the same kind of indepth postmortem, showing a determination to learn from what happened.

      I know very experienced teachers who have disaster years (that is how they see it) but they bounce back soon enough, especially if they are prepared to examine their practice in detail. Don’t let it define you..because it doesn’t.


  4. Thanks for this insight into your thinking. I am a HoD in science and, like you, I do take every failed expectation rather personally. I also find that although my teaching doesn’t differ much from other colleagues my results in physics always have worse value added. I am a passionate physics teacher and people tell me that I am inspirational, I have excellent relationships with the kids and I am told that they love my teaching. All this is great but my Biology colleagues do better. Why? Am I delusional here or what can you help me in this dilemma? I am surrounded by CDT and Art teachers who are exceptional but sometimes I look at the data and see the expectations lower CDT often they are predicted lower grades form baseline testing than Physics and indeed triple science grades are often higher predictions than if the same pupil did core and additional. Yet we only allow the high achievers to do separate science. If we were only interested in value added then we would enter them for core and additional but we know that they need to do triple science.
    So can yo shed some light on this seeming anomaly in the data, why are pupils expected to do better at Physics than core and additional and expected to do worse at CDT? Why do I always get worse results than Biology and less pupils choosing A level although I don’t think I’m a worse teacher and neither do the kids?


    • Don’t get fixated with comparing yourself to biology, it’s not a valid or meaningful comparison. With value-added data you can only compare physics with physics. Look at what the average national benchmark data is for physics, and compare yourself to that. Biology is different. As is art and cdt. Your students think you are ace. What’s not to like about that. Take care.


      • Thank you John for this kind reply and you are right I shouldn’t get fixated about this and it is great to know the kids think this of me but I still find it hard to argue against an SMT who expect value added to be as good in any subject as any other. Anyway you are right, less fixation is healthier. Merry Xmas and thanks again for your kind words, just what i needed.


Leave a Reply to Wilow Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s