What should parents do when their child’s results are worse than expected?

The principal of one of Auckland's top-ranked schools says while strong exam results are important, they are not necessarily the "be-all and end-all" for students.

Danny O'Connor, principal at ACG Strathallan in Karaka, says it is not a catastrophe if students don't achieve the pass rates they were aiming for.

Instead he advises parents and their children to keep results in perspective and work with teachers to develop a "future action plan" to help lift academic performance – or revise their strategy to get into the course they want if they intend going on to university.

Despite his school being Metro magazine's top-ranked south Auckland school after achieving an 87 per cent pass rate in UE (University Entrance) in 2017 – and recording an A-Level pass rate of 99.6 per cent last year – O'Connor says academic achievement is just one measure of success.

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His comments come as the often nervous and worrying wait for exam results ended for students and parents throughout the country with the release of the 2018 NCEA and Cambridge international curriculum results this month.

Although many students achieve the marks they hoped for some of approximately 175,000 who sit exams each year will be left disappointed.

ACG Strathallan is one of four independent schools operated by ACG Education in New Zealand. The ACG schools offer students the Cambridge curriculum rather than NCEA, but O'Connor says no matter the system good pass marks provide a gateway to what students want to do after leaving school and so exams are important from that perspective.

He says his school has a strong culture of learning: "But that culture is not just limited to the classroom. Our students are also achieving exceptional results in everything from arts and music to sport.

"Our overarching goal is to provide a holistic education to help students grow and develop into good people – and go on to make a positive difference in their communities."

O'Connor says because students can feel under pressure if they don't achieve the exam results they want, it is important to develop a future action plan – which usually begins with a school dean consulting teachers before starting a conversation with parents.

"Personally I've never known a school offering so much support to students," he says. "We have smaller class sizes – so logically we are able to do more one-on-one teaching – and our staff will run revision sessions during holiday periods to help students prepare for exams.

"We have a no surprises policy and if there are any problems we'll get in touch with the parents; we expect them to get on board quickly and I'm sure any good school does this."

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O'Connor says while students always have the option of seeking a re-grade of their results, parents should also be asking a number of key questions to determine if their child has been successful in ways other than academically - have they improved in confidence; are they looking forward to the next year; have they stepped outside their comfort zone are examples.

Another ACG head, Nathan Villars, the principal of ACG Sunderland, says exam time can be very stressful for students. "On the one hand they are trying to manage their own anxiety levels and on the other, their parent/school expectations; it can definitely be tricky being a student these days."

Like ACG Strathallan, ACG Sunderland has a strong academic record. Last year the school achieved pass rates of 100 per cent in A Levels and 91 per cent for UE yet Villars accepts there are always cases where students perform poorly or fail to attain grades aimed for.

Villars says a strong parent-teacher-student relationship is key to putting structures in place to help students improve in these situations: "It is important students, together with teachers, analyse their efforts – where they did well, where they did poorly – and to also involve parents in the review process."


For Year 13 students there are a number of options:

  • Returning to school and re-sitting papers as a Year 14
  • Doing Pathways or other intermediate courses (programmes designed to help students attain the entry requirements in their chosen area of study)
  • Doing a gap year (typically a year-long break between high school and university) and taking extra time to mature before making career/life decisions

"The reality is sometimes the course of study a student desires might not be possible straight away," Villars says.

"We had one very bright student in Year 13 who, for whatever reason, didn't pass Literacy (one of the criteria for being able to enter a university). She had to do a foundation year at university before she started her degree, but doing this really motivated her – she felt she had a point to prove.

"She ended up acing her foundation course and then went straight into engineering," Villars says. "So what was seen as a negative to begin with actually gave her added confidence and became a positive."

How to help students performing poorly in exams is an issue educationalists around the world grapple with.

In an article published in the Independent in the UK in 2017, a history and politics teacher in England, Jenni Yuill, says disappointing results do not measure the worth of an individual nor do they equal ruined futures and failure.

"Indeed some will attribute their future success to today's disappointment, be that it gave them the shock they needed in order to work hard….or because it set them on an unexpected path…..or a career choice they hadn't thought of.

"Regardless of grades, there will be better days than this one (exam results day) and there will be worse ones too. It is just one day."