21 August 2009
I was pleasantly surprised by yesterday's A-level results. Not necessarily because they were very good, although the usual congratulations to every student who did well, but because there seemed to be fewer and fewer whinges from society's ivory towers.
Maybe the complaints were aired, but I was just reading and listening to the wrong (or right) news outlets and missed them all. This debate has been going on forever, really. The night before I ripped open my results envelope in August 1991, I remember a Newsnight debate on the difficulty or otherwise of the exams, thereby puncturing the hopes of every keen-eyed, ambitious, conscientious student in the country. I found my A-level exams to be rock hard, thank you.
I can honestly say I've never been more nervous in my life than when I collected my A-level results. Bright students did A-levels, but even among the intelligentsia at school there was a bottom end and a top end, and I was at the bottom end of the sixth form pecking order, praying for a couple of Ds. There were people in my year for whom straight As (no A* grades back then) were inevitable and who had already begun to plan for Oxbridge. The only immature adolescent consolation I took from this was that none of them were any good at football.
When I took my exams at 16, the results were sent in the post. At the time our area had the world's slackest postman, which meant I didn't get my results until two o'clock in the bloody afternoon, by which time I had climbed every damned wall in the house. The first telephone call I got from a schoolfriend was at 9am sharp, asking me how I did, and I had to say "I don't know yet, the bloody postman's not been" several more times, each time sounding less and less tranquil.
At 18 though, you had to go to school for the results, because the teachers needed to be on hand to dish out advice and help (and tissues) if the grades that greeted you weren't quite what you needed. I lived ten minutes from school by bike and duly cycled in first thing that morning, waiting patiently in the common room with a couple of others while we heard the teachers shuffling paper behind a closed door nearby. We listened out for the odd tutting noise or an "oh dear" but no such clues were forthcoming.
The wait seemed to last forever, and at one point my head of sixth form emerged from the room of truth to answer a call of nature, muttering to me "You've done well in your French, I think". He acted surprised by this, the twat, as he'd made assumptions about my lack of dedication to my studies, whereas I'd worked my arse off to get anywhere near my required grades. Still, the news, however haughtily delivered, offered me hope that it wasn't going to be a bad day after all.
Eventually, the handful of us who had gathered were given our papers and we all retired to different corners and areas of our common room to open them alone. As I recall, we all did as well as we could hope for and soon were congratulating one another. My conditional place at Darlington College of Technology to train as a journalist was secure. I did fail one exam, courtesy of an N grade.
I've never discovered what that meant. Neutral? Nearly? Neither?
It was a very hot day and at this point we realised we had all turned up a bit early. Out of the window we saw a big load of our classmates gathered on a grass verge, nervously chatting as they sat and waited for the call. I wandered outside with my envelope in my hand and one lone voice from this group of 30 or so teenagers said: "Have you got yours?"
"Yep, they've just started handing them out."
There was this collective squeal and everyone rushed to their feet and charged past me, heading for the sixth form door. I felt this burst of air as everyone passed, almost spinning round in a rapid circle in the way Billy Whizz's dad always did when his son sprinted past him. I followed them up, and slowly watched this large group of young people with ideas in their heads and stars in their eyes either screaming in glee or, in a few cases, bursting into floods of tears.
People who scorn A-levels, be they 1991 stylee or today, have to remember that they are taken by committed students, who have chosen to further broaden their minds when they could have opted to quit school at 16 and do something else. Having made this conscious decision, they are evidently going to work every part of their brain into the ground to try to get what they want. This is why it really depresses me when alleged academics automatically assume that the exams must be too easy if those sitting them have the nerve to do well.
Would they prefer the exams to be made so difficult that almost nobody will pass them? If so, then their capacity to criticise will just make them accuse all our teenagers of being thick and lazy instead. Damned if you do...
It's a typically British attitude to knock the achievers in society and no more has it ever been as prevalent than on results day. Hopefully I'm right in my observation that belittling of the exams and consequent devaluing of the graft put in by the teenagers seems to have lessened this year. If I'm not, then they should just shut up and find someone or something worthy of their dismal negativity.
Incidentally, yet again the papers seem to have chosen only to interview and photograph glamorous 18 year old female students (or as Private Eye calls them, "fruity girls!") about their results. No wonder boys are falling behind - as far as some media outlets are concerned, they don't seem to take any bloody exams at all...