Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

How finishing my GCSEs taught me what true independence was

I write this article having just completed my final exam of university. It feels very strange to have no more assignments and be academically free, not only for the summer, but for whatever my education and employment path holds. It is a daunting feeling knowing that both three years of studying but also 17 years of formal education have come to a close. While leaving university will be a big step, I feel like a perhaps bigger, but certainly unexplored, transition in education is finishing one’s GCSEs and leaving secondary school. 

For the first time, being out of school during the day was allowed

Just think about it. Until you took your GCSEs, it was compulsory to be in school five days a week, from start to end. That was something I took seriously. To have the best chance of academic success, I liked to always be present at school, taking days off for illness on very rare occasions. This meant my only time outside of school during the week was for school trips or appointments. We can all remember being on those coaches, being told to behave in uniform as representatives of the school. It almost felt rebellious to be outside the school gates during those working hours. 

Yet this became the norm when GCSEs started. Following a leavers’ assembly, we went on study leave. This meant students were only required in school for their exams. Suddenly, for the first time, being out of school during the day was allowed. The timing worked well for me, as this was when the 2017 UK general election campaign was taking place. On a day I did not have an exam, I might’ve watched some of the coverage at home. To be watching TV in the middle of the day felt like an act of defiance. It’s no wonder that I went into school to complete most of my revision for fear of being distracted. 

Suddenly, we as individuals were taking account of our decisions and our future lives

Indeed, there would be occasions where I might have two exams on one day: one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I fondly remember this situation and going out of school to the shops with a friend. In any other circumstances, this would be playing truant. Here, it was perfectly acceptable. While teachers would encourage students to wear a uniform for their exams, for it would encourage working well in a focused manner, they could not enforce it. As such, non-uniform attendance, including wearing jeans, was frequent. 

This period saw a real embracement of independence, where we as young people – some, like myself, not yet 16 – were taking accountability and gaining responsibility. For so long, schools had been the beacon for providing this to us, offering guidance and help. While they were still very much present, not least during our academic commitments, suddenly, we as individuals were taking account of our decisions and our future lives. Indeed, it was all preparation both for the future academic journey and broader social development in becoming adults. 

Though this independence can be nerve-wracking, it is part of what it means to be free

Such a development was even clearer in sixth form. I left my secondary school to attend a separate sixth form. Though this won’t have been the case for everyone, it provided me with a brilliant halfway house between secondary school and university. How? Through free periods. Though there would be lessons everyday, we would have the free time to conduct our own reading and preparation work. It was therefore our responsibility to use time wisely. Indeed, I remember in my first year starting later on Fridays. Did I use the mornings for productive work or catching up on politics shows I’d missed? You can guess the answer. 

Looking back now, as I come to the end of university, I did not realise at the time quite how important finishing my GCSEs was as a period of self-development and increased independence. With this period of my life now five years – half a decade – ago, it seems both a lifetime ago and just like yesterday. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic all but ending in the UK, I still don’t think its impact on our perception of time has been adequately explored. Yet, though this independence can be nerve-wracking, it is part of what it means to be free. Reflecting on my school days – that’s something I won’t easily forget. 



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