A Levels: Don’t let the shifting goal posts spoil your day

For many students, A-Level results day marks the first day of the rest of their lives. Andy Irwin tells students to celebrate their successes and look to the future despite uncertain times and shifting goalposts.

When I got my A-Level results on a grey day (much like today) in August 2008, I congratulated myself on having made my way through two years of education that I simply saw as an inconvenient bridge between my GCSEs and going to university. My further education experience was akin to being stuck in purgatory, an obstacle I had to overcome before doing something I had decided I wanted to do even before I finished primary school. Back in 2008, the Talking Media Heads were all wobbling their jowly disapproval and clucking irritably about another increase in the number of A level pass grades and ‘A’ gradesBack then, everyone was doing too well, and the talking heads concluded that my A Levels were just too easy, and that was that. University applications were through the roof, up-up-and-away. Too many people were going to university. Grumble grumble.

This morning, it became clear to me after I watched a group of A level students pick up their results that the same Talking Media Heads will devalue students’ achievements by bitching at pretty well whatever trends and vital statistics are crunched and spat out in the late hours of the morning on results day. Today, there’s been a second-drop-in-two-years-O-M-G in top grades, but the overall pass rate has risen again. This country is going to the dogs I tell you.

In two years time again, AS Level results will no longer count toward students’ overall A Level grades, with the ‘important’ exams taken at the end of two years of teaching. There are pros and cons to this, but the issue is often compresed into the solitary matter of how to avoid students being taught to pass exams rather than to become accomplished learners and critical thinkers. Perhaps this would be neither a perception nor a reality if teachers weren’t constantly pressed to meet unhelpful and marketised targets, but that is probably for another day.

One point, however, remains constant. If you have worked hard in further education, or even if it has simply helped you to come one step closer to whatever it is you want to do, then you should be celebrating tonight. If you’ve just had your results, celebrate for yourselves and your friends. If you’re one of those who like me is watching those embarking on their post-further education path, have a little drink on them – for posterity, you understand.

Two positive things to remember for those of us who are fretting over the futures of the next generation of further education leavers:

1) For those transitioning to higher education, the ever expanding support services and students’ unions provisions up and down the country mean that HE students are as well-looked after and catered for as they have ever been, at a time when the university experience is pervasively seen (in my opinion positively) as more than just an academic experience. It is also a life experience – with more opportunities to expand your skills and network now available than you can shake a student loan at. Even the word ‘Transitioning’ is more than the meaningless buzzword it appears to be, as institutions make unprecedented and detailed preparations to welcome students to their new homes and new lives.

2) The number of young people choosing apprenticeships and on-the-job training is increasing. About bloody time too. The worst effect of neoliberalism on many British young people’s aspirations derived first from the Conservatives’ and then New Labour’s disgraceful devaluation of the apprenticeship and vocational training in general. Tony Blair’s swaggering desire to see 50% of young people go to university during his Premiership was not ludicrous because on some level we couldn’t possibly have 50% of young people going to university, it was ludicrous because it concreted the sense that university was, on some fundamental level, the only way to go. It most certainly is not, and I am reminded of one of my oldest friends from home in Preston, who has never been to University (which has done his life prospects no harm) saying to me when I was 17: “just remember, Andy, it takes a lot of philosophers to change a light bulb, but it only takes one to call an electrician.” His point: it takes all kinds of people to make a world. The rise in the number of young people actively choosing vocational training and apprenticeships is encouraging, and hopefully it is not merely a symptom of unaffordable tuition fees or the perceived saturation of the graduate market.

There are reasons to be cheerful then, and if you are one step closer to your dreams this evening, then get out there and enjoy yourself, and just for one day, ignore all those news stories telling you that whatever you’re doing, you’re screwed – because you’re not. Raise a glass.

Andy Irwin