Pause for Thought BBC Radio 2 August 18 th 2011

For many anxious young people, today is A level result day. Futures are about to be decided, potential careers advanced or abandoned on the basis of whatever grades are revealed. 

The day my A level results came out coincided with my 18 th birthday, so I called an impromptu party. I collected four schoolmates from the local tube station in my mum’s Morris Minor, and we compared results. Each announced their four A grades, before I rather diffidently I declared my 2 Bs and a D. ‘Oh that’s good!’ they all exclaimed, in a patronising tone that really meant ‘how pathetic’.

How many of those getting their results today will feel as inadequate as I did at that moment? Had I known of him at the time, I might have quoted Rabbi ben Azzai, who said ‘Do not scorn anyone and do not discount anyone. For there is no one who does not have their hour and no thing that does not have its place.’

But exam results like those that will be discovered today serve to brand our young people as successes or failures at an early age. Maybe some of what lay behind the appalling events of a couple of weeks ago has its roots in the sharp – and artificial – distinction we make between those whom we class as having ability and those we dismiss because they don’t make the grade. 

Chris, I can’t help thinking about our mate Johnny Saunders* who, along with so many brave individuals, will step into classrooms next month to teach the next generation. I know from my teaching days the potential contained in each and every child I had the privilege of teaching. But how much of that can be revealed in an exam paper, how much of it perceived by an anonymous marker – and how much of it gets lost because we have yet to find a proper way of measuring and valuing it? Another rabbi asked: ‘Who is wise?’ ‘A person who learns from everyone,’ came the reply. We need to find ways of valuing what all our children say.

* Jonny Saunders was the sports reporter on the Chris Evans Show before giving it up to become a teacher.