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30th April 2019

Controversy, Reinvention and Success – what Madonna and exams have in common

Madonna’s 60th birthday and exam result season are sharing the same space in the media this year this year – which is, perhaps, quite timely given that the singer is often coined as the ‘queen of reinvention’ and the fact that A-levels have, yet again, gone through a series of changes.

Whilst it won’t be a surprise to anyone when I say I am no expert on the social and cultural influence of Madonna, given that this is my 9th results day season at Oakham School, and my 14th as a Headmaster, I do have extensive experience of the cycle of the media coverage of results day season – which, just like Madonna, repeatedly includes stories of controversy, reinvention and success.


The Queen of Pop has, over her 40-year career, regularly courted controversy to promote and sell her albums or concert tickets, which has resulted in criticism in the media.

Results days provide an intensive focus for criticism of education generally, and exams specifically.  Listeners to the Today Programme this morning would have heard a reference to a ‘Bums on seat culture’ at universities, whilst those reading the papers or newsfeeds will have seen references to the ‘scramble to fill places’ or ‘bribes to smart students’, along with the stories on the ‘plunging pass mark’ to ‘protect pupils from revamp’.

The key difference, of course, is that Madonna creates her own coverage – her actions result in discussion, analysis and conversation.  This is vastly different to students who, when they receive their exam results or university places, find themselves collectively under attack, their results or achievements belittled, for absolutely no fault of their own. They have done nothing other than to study hard for the exams set for them. Results days should purely be a time to celebrate the success of so many young people. They should not have to live in the shadow of educational controversy that was not of their making.


I think, perhaps, that exams could rival Madonna’s crown for the title of the ‘queen of reinvention’.  This is the first year where nearly every A-level subject was assessed purely by linear exams.  Whilst others will continue to debate the value of such changes, reinvention has an impact on the students. In the case of Madonna, reinvention keeps her on the front of the news agenda, her profile and bank balance raised.  For students, reinvention comes at a cost.  Linear exams have undoubtedly created yet more pressure. This is at a time when they already have to deal with all of the issues of being a teenager in an amplified social media world.  I am proud that Oakhamians have, on the whole, coped incredibly well with the changes. They have learnt a great deal about themselves in the process of studying for these new linear examinations.  It has been our priority as a School – as is always the case at Oakham, to pastorally support them.  We have helped them to develop their own strategies to cope with this additional pressure.


Madonna is one of the world’s best-selling female recording artists – her albums and successes are ranked on a variety of different charts and listings.  However, her success, influence and impact cannot simply be reduced to a series of numbers – this would diminish what she has done and achieved.

This is much the same as school league tables – they are but a blunt tool to showcase just one aspect of a student’s intellectual ability.  Young people are much more than their examination results – they have learnt so much during their school journey, most of which can never be measured by just exam results. Nor should it be. It is the full spectrum of learning that is hardly scratched by any examination that will give them the skills and confidence to forge exciting pathways in the coming years.

Ultimately, whilst she may continue to court controversy, reinvent herself and generate success, Madonna’s 61st birthday won’t be celebrated in the press next year. Results day will, however, follow a similar format of controversy, reinvention and success, until one day we are bold enough to move away from examinations.

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