The Guardian – 18th August 2004
You are sitting around wondering whether the Royal Mail is finally going to deliver
your child the academic future you all crave. You may be at home; you may be on
holiday. But anxieties are high because in the back of your mind is the poisonous
little message that A-Levels matter more than life and death. Some version of this
mantra has been handed down for over a generation. It proclaims that those who do
well this day will live long, prosper and get a mortgage. Those who don’t will remain
a credit drain on their families and possibly end up on drugs.
Absurd unconscious pressures are one thing. But you cannot open a newspaper at
present without reading dire warnings of the plummeting value of every type of
educational qualification from English tests at 14 to the majority of university degrees.
Not only will you learn that pupils “are less clever than they used to be” but also that
the volume of students has so flooded the market “it has reduced graduate wages”.
One third of those who left college in 2003, for example, have attracted absolutely no
wages at all for they remain unemployed. So even if your child does well in exams,
what the hell does it count for?
The insidious thought then occurs that A-Level ‘failure’ may be much harder to bear
when for the 22nd straight year in a row record numbers of pupils are likely to be
awarded multiple A-Grades in all subjects. Those poor parents of pupils attaining
any E-Grades in 2004, therefore, should certainly be prepared to die of educational
shame by falling on their swords. In Japan, they wouldn’t think about it twice. But
before you look up how to perform hara-kiri on the Internet, consider the wider facts.
The fret about falling standards is both real and unreal. Yes, Britain could try harder
to teach the three R’s like the continentals but most of the charge fails to appreciate
how the real world has changed.
When I did A-Level history, for example, students could be docked 5 marks for every
spelling mistake. If that rule were applied today, many pupils would score in the minus
bracket. We were also required to regurgitate the shameful career of Britain’s previously
most corrupt Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in mind-numbing detail, having already
spent three hours doing a Maths exam in the morning without benefit of calculators.
But to what purpose? We ended up as bad trainee journalists, able to toss off a
three-hour essay on anything without critical thought yet pernickety to the point
of obsession about orthography. Yes, ‘standards’ then were higher and so was the price.
I worked like a devil for my A grades but didn’t go out for 24 months because I was
too busy reciting Latin verbs at bedtime. While I think we should still teach handwriting
like the French and even elocution for those who mutter, the education provided today
has simply been updated for a technically improved environment.
So worry not a scrap about the slurs. We’re all in the same futuristic boat. Your child
must be educated to deal with a world of team-meetings, not spelling tests; for lateral
thinking, not tunnel vision; for independent responsibility and not mindless
subscription to authority. Not only that, but modern A-Levels allow enormous scope
for the expansion in types of job and their entry qualifications and I don’t just mean in
Beach Management and Golf. The fact remains that most foreign students still
believe British A-Levels and degrees are worth having – the market at least insists
they represent good value.
So having got that clear how do you react when the dread results are opened? Well
don’t be like my Dad. When in 1964 I told him I’d got an unfashionable collection of
1A-grades he simply asked “Was that good?” Success at A-level is a cause for
rejoicing, a big hug and the transfer of cash. Praise now can boost your child’s new
adult confidence like nothing else. But what to do if your child achieves rather less
than they would wish?
It’s often best to ask questions than volunteer opinions from the obvious: “How do
you feel about it?” to the practical: “Would you like to come to the cinema tonight?”
Remember that your child’s emotions are separate from yours. They have to do the
learning from this experience, not you, and for a while there will be a period of shock
and possibly some degree of mourning. Don’t be taken in by exterior jauntiness.
Some of the worst depressive symptoms are carefully masked, particularly at this
teenage stage. You need to be available as a resource, general backup,
quartermaster and chef. But what you MOST need to do is to avoid any suggestion
of despondency on your part and here’s why.
First, if necessary, exams can usually be re-taken. Second, high grades are no
longer regarded as the only criterion for college admission. Third, and most
important, there is good evidence to suggest that exams have never been able to
measure those components of character and personality, which most strongly
determine your future success in life anyway.
One simple test of this is to ask yourself what became of the swots from your
schooldays? Swanning around in white limousines, are they? No, I agree. Not all of
them went on to rule the outside world. Many such people are in fact too
idiosyncratic to make very successful lives and livings. Second, whatever happened
to those likeable form clowns? Are they all destitute? I thought not.
Interestingly, the statistics suggest that pupils with high levels of emotional intelligence,
good social skills and a well-tuned sense of humour but not blessed with a big academic
brain are the ones most likely to do well for themselves in later life. In his “Emotional
Intelligence”, author Daniel Goleman summarises the situation:
• Today one third of US employees are knowledge workers in teams
• Teams are the nervous systems of organisations
• The biggest factor making for team success is not IQ it is co-operativeness
(Princeton’s Bell Laboratory’s study of engineers)
• Teams that co-operate best are better at handling a crisis
• Academic talent is not the best predictor of success in problem-solving – a
bunch of geniuses rarely co-operate well – they are too busy competing with
• High IQ at school does not determine life success or happiness – at best, it
contributes about 20 per cent
So don’t panic, and don’t rush. Not only does your child have plenty of time in which
to evolve decision-making about a future career (sorry, they are not off your hands
until their mid-20s at least) but if the chosen route avoids time spent at university this
may not after all ruin their earning power or promotional prospects.
In other words, if your child does NOT do well enough to gain entry into higher
education I hope you will not lose too much sleep over it. Nor is every child holding
Alice Bartlett, for example, 18, from Tetbury, Gloucestershire (tel 01666 503136) is
as laid-back about getting her A-level results as it’s possible to be. She’s not even
sure which day they come out. It probably helps that she knows exactly what she
2wants to do next – a college course in Technical Theatre. She says that although the
extra points would be helpful to guarantee her place, the A-Level results are probably
not going to make any significant difference. Yes, her exams went okay. No, she
wasn’t super-stressed by them. No, she’s not unusual in being relaxed. It was well
known at school who was going to study hard and who would ‘have a life instead’.
Modern students seem so much more sorted on this front. One of Alice’s friends,
also 18, even landed a job as an airhostess before she’d sat the exams. No A-level
angst there then.
Where does Alice see herself in seven to ten years time?
“Auditioning everywhere I can and probably working in a restaurant”. Are her parents
stressed by her exam results? Not in the least – “their difficult moment came when
they heard I wanted to become an actress but are completely supportive today…”
As families, we need to look very hard at the bill of goods being advertised by Tony
Blair in his quest to expand university education. Numbers of tertiary students are
projected to rise from 400,00 in 1963 to more than three million by 2010.
Alas, it is very doubtful whether there will be enough graduate jobs for them. The debate is
fierce but both sides have to concede that ‘academy is no longer destiny’. Employers
appear to be disillusioned with ‘graduate immaturity’. The value of a degree in the
earnings tables is already falling by one per cent per annum. Those who go straight
from school into work enjoy an income, instead of five figure debts, for an additional
three to seven years. In terms of mere pounds and pence, over a working lifetime,
they miss out by less than you might assume. One third of 2003’s graduate crop is
And contemplate this irony. One of my son’s friends actually found
himself being interviewed for a banking job by the degree-less boy he used to explain
Differential Calculus to in the Fifth Form. Just as well, really.
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and