GCSEs and A Levels: An unfair examination of ambition

As media outlets donated more time to school achievers in the annual reporting of GCSE and A Level results, I thought I would reassure those teenagers that feel forgotten at this time of year. Away from the cheering blondes on the front pages and thousands of 18 year olds battling to get to their favoured university, there are many more teenagers thinking that their future doesn’t look very bright. Maybe because right now, they themselves do not feel very bright.

But passing exams is only one way to judge intelligence. Common sense, initiative and emotional intelligence are not easily tested by schools and universities. Furthermore, as humans we develop at different speeds and it just might be that at 16 to 18 – you were not ready for the intensity of those studies and exams. I did not do A Levels until I was 22. I had left school at 17 with 3 O Levels and a cluster of CSEs (which meant very little then and means absolutely nothing now). I went to an awful comprehensive in Reading, which was so poor, it shutdown when I was there and we were the last ever 16 year olds to attend.

I could have easily been written off at 16 – and in many ways I actually was. I talked about a dream to work in radio and the media but teachers dismissed that with virtual contempt. I left school and took the first and only job I applied for, working in a factory doing a role that was incredibly mundane. Through increased confidence and surrounded by people who had perhaps been similarly dismissed after school I pushed for promotion and ended up working in more senior roles.┬áBy the time I studied A Levels I felt far more able to tackle them. I had grown up (a bit anyway) and could articulate thoughts and analyse texts in a way that was beyond me at 15 and 16. I got great grades and was able to study journalism as a result.

That experience led to me to believe the system of school to university is too fixed. I have written about this a few times. But if more 18 year olds were encouraged to wait before going to university I think they would get more value from it when they eventually attend.

Too often the media focuses on the black and white of success and failure with regards exams. Of course, it is not that simple. Most teenagers achieve moderate success and need to be encouraged to have ambition and aspiration, which isn’t just about going to a ‘top’ university. Thinking that poor academic results at 16 or 18 is the end is clearly wrong. As Mark Kermode, the film reviewer tweeted, his grades were not great all those years ago but it doesn’t mean that’s it for the rest of your life. His career did not turn out so bad after all. If you struggle with exams or university work now, perhaps you need to live a little first and return to your learning in a few years. The key to remember is that nothing is final at 16 or 18.



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