My my, all this fuss about exam grades. Lots of huffing and a similar amount of puffing and nobody seems to know what to do. Some will have got lucky and ended up with grades slightly better than they deserved and according to a few this means that while they may have once had aspirations to clean the toilets in a Wetherspoons instead they could be part of the next generation of high court judges. Because that’s how it works. Unluckier souls have been thoroughly let down by this emergency calculator and are up in arms (or rather their parents are) because while Lucy, Priyanka, Gary or Lin-Ho may have really, really wanted straight A’s that hasn’t happened, and so they’ll just harangue Gavin Williamson (who I believe is expecting his GCSE results next week) until they get what they want. Because that’s also how it works.
I like the idea that exams have got easier because it lends the illusion that my GCSE’s and A-Levels must have been granite hard. Indeed my papers were so hard they were written in back-to-front Cantonese and I had to complete them while undergoing simultaneous root canal work. A few years ago it sounded like most teenagers could get a dozen straight A*’s just by turning up and accusing the examiner of sexual interference, and that just isn’t fair because I worked my arse off for my qualifications. Only kidding, for the four years it took me to take all those exams my attitude towards academia hovered around indifference, and I probably only scraped through thanks to fear and some pretty rigorous bollockings – to think such things used to be accepted as legitimate motivators.
I say all this because a nephew of mine has just done really rather well at his A Levels, certainly well enough to not need his Mum and Dad to appear on the local news with their angry story of being let down by ‘the system’. He surely deserves good grades, this nephew of mine; he is bright, capable, went to an emerging secondary school near Windsor and comes from good stock (though I would say that). It would have been a surprise if he’d ended up with 2 D’s and an N, which is what his Dad, my brother, managed for his A Levels (of course, recalculated for inflation those grades would seem much better now and in fairness they were not a reflection on his intelligence, merely his work ethic). If anything my big brother’s approach to schooling was even more laissez-faire than my own but he always knew what he wanted to do with his life and when it came to the important moments (that didn’t involve A Level grades, obviously) he hit the right note and made a success of himself. He now works in a job that is apparently so complicated he doesn’t even try to explain it to me.
In some ways my big brother let me lower my standards a little – if he could get away with those kind of results then surely there was hope for me too. Unfortunately for me (in this one sense only) I also have a big sister and she has a brain roughly half the size of Luxembourg; to say that she is hard working and mentally agile is to say that Ronnie O’Sullivan is a moderately gifted snooker player, or that Donald Trump can be a bit of a cock. While big brother was busy doing fuck all and I was busy doing fuck all but pretending otherwise big sister was smashing her GCSE’s and A Levels all over the place. For her any letter other than ‘A’ was just a grade that happened to other people and using the reward scale that my parents offered as an extra incentive (I can’t quite remember, but something like £20 for an ‘A’, £10 for a ‘B’ and so on – I think big brother got 40p for his A Levels) she made an absolute mint, and jolly well done for her.
That left me, Mummy’s little soldier, floating in the middle in a kind of academic mezzanine of my own making. Too far to drop, too high to climb. For a few years it looked like I’d already jacked it all in, so lazy and stupid had I become, so it came as quite a surprise when I did alright in my GCSE’s. Don’t get me wrong I didn’t exactly set them on fire, but it could have been a lot worse than the solitary A, 5 B’s, a C and a D that I eventually managed to squeeze out. The turning point must have been the day that Mr Shaw laid into me in front of the class with such cold, crystal clear brutality that even cocky little me was able to see that at the rate I was going that job mopping up piss in a Wetherspoons toilet would have been a grand dream indeed. He has my eternal gratitude, wherever he is, as I abruptly got on with some proper work and undid most of the damage: thereby proving to all that I’m not quite as much of a waste of space as I frequently lead them to believe. Hooray for GCSE’s!
Oddly enough that ‘A’ grade was for Religious Studies, a subject I had very little interest in, but being an idiot I took it as a sign (perhaps from Jesus) and so for the next two years I dropped English (as is abundantly clear) and continued on my path towards not becoming a Catholic priest. Religious Studies was accompanied by Geography and History, so any chance of earning decent money in adulthood was very much out of the window already. Geography I liked, though I could never understand why anyone would need to know much about the subtle nuances of each form of fluvial sediment transportation unless they were some kind of lonely, curious eel. History I wanted to like more than I did, but you’d be amazed at just how dull the French Revolution seemed when I was 17, and as for the religious stuff well that was just me sitting in a room full of Jewish and Muslim teenagers locked in a permanent shouting match and if anything it just served as the final nail in my personal God shaped coffin (so on one major level that was rather handy). In the end I clocked up a BCD combo, which clearly could have been both better or worse, though I now feel like suing The Jackson Five because ABC evidently isn’t as easy as they seemed to suggest.
In conclusion, exams are shit. Surely nobody actually likes studying for and sitting exams. Perhaps there are a few who get some kind of perverse pleasure from them, but that would make more sense if there were also teachers out there who would happily mark exams for free. The exams I took all those years ago wouldn’t count for anything in the job world now; I’d have to rely on my work experience to see me through, rather than pinning my hopes on that ‘D’ I got at GCSE Biology. For some of the kids who are getting their grades this summer there has probably never been a more important moment in their lives thus far (equally, some of them won’t give a tiny toss) but when they look back many years from now it may seem like a lot of fuss over nothing. You can study medicine at Oxford and end up a junkie or you can study weightlifting at Rotherham Polytechnic and end up a millionaire. You never know how things will pan out, not matter how hard you try, and where you end up is often dictated by a lot more than a bunch of letters on a piece of paper. Personally I am always astounded when I meet someone who studied something like quantum physics or advanced philosophy at somewhere like King’s College, Cambridge and then ended up as a teacher. Not that there’s anything wrong with teachers; some of them are brilliant. Anyway, well done nephew, that was all I was really trying to say.
G B Hewitt. 14.08.2020