A Levels Matter. Amongst other things.

Written in 2015: – but still relevant. 

There have been some great blogs about A level results:

Here’s John Tomsett: This much I know about A level results day – the liberating power of doing well – having choices, moving away from home etc.

Geoff Barton: Worrying about results won’t help – great advice to students who don’t get what they hoped for; you still have options.

And James Theobald: JT Airlines – We’re a Great Way to Fall – the annoying trend for successful people to tell students that their education didn’t matter, as if their path is typical or reproducible.

James’ post starts off with this tweet from Jeremy Clarkson:

And here he is at it again in 2017

Discussing this at home, we agreed that there are different ways to interpret this message.  A generous interpretation would be that Jeremy is reaching out in a caring way to students who’ve been disappointed to tell them not to feel that all hope is lost – there are other ways to find success.  Obviously a villa in St Tropez is the ultimate symbol of success! But, having looked into Jeremy’s career path, he’s glossed over quite a few details: (not that you’d expect him to include his life story in one tweet.)

According to Wikipedia, Jeremy went to Repton School – an Independent boarding school.  This is the kind of school that breeds that sense of entitlement (to villas in St Tropez etc); he’d have left school with the swagger of self-confidence that is really what school fees pay for.  Not everyone get’s that.  To be fair, he’s not from a wealthy family – his family ran a business selling toy bears and devoted their earnings to school fees.  However, Jeremy was able to join his family business selling toy bears after he left school. So, having stuffed up his A levels, he had a family business to fall back on.  Not everyone has that. Still here, he’s sold himself short; it wasn’t an easy job, selling bears door-to-door.   Most interestingly and impressively, Jeremy set up an agency for car reviews when he was 24 – and the rest is history.  He had to work through the ranks of the car review trade, persevering for many years before he found the level of success he now enjoys.  He didn’t tweet that bit.

This would have been a more complete story: If your A level results aren’t great, you can still find success by working really hard over the next twenty years like I did.  The message is different. Not ‘A levels don’t matter – so don’t give up’ but ‘working hard and persevering can lead to success – so don’t give up’.

This distinction is important.  I have a couple of close friends who didn’t go to university and/or did really badly in their A levels who have had massively successful careers – in advertising and in the oil industry.  They did well because they worked hard, doing jobs early on that weren’t glamorous but that gave them the opportunity to develop industry specific knowledge and skills.  Do they dismiss A levels and university now? No, they don’t – they encouraged their kids to be as successful in their education as possible.  Why? Because it was bloody hard to get where they did, via the route they took.  In fact, both have children heading to university this year with top A level grades.

Post-results processes in the last couple of years seem to have been far less brutal  – now that university places are not capped as they were. Lots of schools are having great success with students getting onto really good courses having dropped a grade or two from their offers, students offered AAA getting in with ABB, for example.  We’re also seeing great success through clearing and with students getting excellent university places via L3 Diplomas.  Students with D*D*D or triple D* on a BTEC or OCR Diploma can secure a good range of courses and their success is almost entirely absent from media coverage – a scandal given the numbers involved.  There is also another layer altogether that is under-represented.  Students with CCC/CCD or DMM are going onto university to study a wide range of courses, (eg Pharmacology, Graphic Design, Product Design, Business). These students have not failed and these progression routes are important.

Clearly it’s a mixed message we need to give.  There is no doubt that students with the highest grades get the best choices.  I got AAAA in my A levels – and it always helped me to get interviews.  My daughter has 4As for AS – that’s going to open doors.  That gives her options. We both achieved success by slogging it out over months of revision in our bedrooms before the exams. There is no question that at school we need to promote the highest level of academic success as the ultimate goal and the hard work required to get there.  But, at the same time, in subtle ways, we need to be careful not to devalue the other routes and pathways and other levels of success.  Even though we’d be foolish to promote BBB as ‘good enough’ for a student aiming for As, it pains me to see students in tears with three Bs at A level feeling that they’ve failed given how many options still remain open.  It’s complicated!

There are added complications with measuring success in life in general: happiness, fulfilment, enlightenment, making a difference, financial success, status symbols….etc.  Let’s not pretend there is a neat definition of success.  Beyond the grades, there is of course a whole world of other things that matter.  Jeremy Clarkson and my two friends have been successful because of their character, their ability to mobilise people, to be methodical and persistent in varying degrees and crucially, learning to be experts in their fields over time.  That’s a message we can give to everyone.  No-one ever finds success comes easily; they always have to work hard and use attributes that are not measured by their A level grades.  Here is something I wrote a couple of years ago – and I’m optimistic that the National Bacc movement that is now growing, will change our perspective in a very healthy way.

Essex Chronicle Thought for the Week June 6th 2013

Students across the country are now in the full swing of the annual exam hall rituals, testing their ability to recall and apply their subject knowledge.  In August all will be revealed when students receive the grades that define their achievements, opening or closing doors, and schools are held to account.  The stakes are incredibly high.

It seems a good moment to reflect on the value we place on examination results relative to all the other elements that constitute ‘a good education’.  Exams don’t capture the extent to which young people contribute to their communities; their capacity for moral leadership; their commitment to artistic and sporting excellence; the empathy and support they give to people living in poverty across the world or their willingness to tackle prejudice.

Exams don’t provide a measure of how effectively someone works in a team; their ability to take initiative or to respond calmly in a crisis; their ability to undertake a long-term in-depth study; their skills in dealing with people from different backgrounds or their powers of persuasion or to be thoughtful, kind and tolerant.  Obviously enough, exams only measure what can be measured in exams!

Meanwhile, as a society, we place considerable value on all the other attributes.  I think we need a system that takes greater account of this bigger picture and allows young people to show more clearly what strengths they have and the full extent of their personal achievements.  I’m currently working with people from across the education sector to devise an English qualifications framework that gives greater weight to these other dimensions; that gives credit for aspects of learning that are not included in exams but that employers and colleges value.  I hope to be able to give more details in due course  – so watch this space.

In the meantime, let’s all remember when the exam results come out, that however important they are, they only tell a part of the story for any student and for any school.

Here’s the most recent post on the National Baccalaureate – with more to come very soon.

And here is me talking at the RSA in July – the case for a National Bacc for England: from 2 mins 40.


  1. Great post – I agree that ‘all is not lost if you work hard at something else’ is the message. And well done to all at HGS!

    It should also be noted that Clarkson got his break in journalism through a spot of nepotism:

    “Walking along the street one day, he came across the general manager of the local paper, a family acquaintance, who asked him what he was doing there. After explaining his expulsion, the man replied that he should become a journalist.
    Clarkson got an interview at the Rotherham Advertiser, where, according to his own account, further good fortune followed. The CV was sparse, but it turned out that Clarkson’s grandfather, a GP, had delivered the editor’s first child, having come out during a World War Two air raid to do so. Still grateful, the editor offered him a job.”



  2. Thanks for this Tom. When I read James’ post I took a look at the Jeremy Clarkson and felt a more charitable interpretation was about less than stellar ‘A’ level results are not the end of your dreams. As many people have written a set of great qualifications empowers young people and gives them a wider range of options and with good support and guidance most students can find somewhere to continue their education, if that is their choice.

    The other thing we have to be very careful about is balancing celebrating and recognising excellence. It’s easy to share about students who get 3 or 4 A’s, but personally I am as proud of those students who clawed and scratched their way to a set of B’s or C’s.

    There is a fine line between entitlement and self-confidence. I’d hope one of our goals as teachers is to instill in all our students a healthy level of self-confidence and give them the self-awareness to know when they are slipping in Clarkson mode.


  3. Great post, and, as another commentator has noted, a little more generous and nuanced than the one offered by James on his blog.

    In addition to Clarkson’s smug offering, there were plenty of other people on Twitter last week trying to offer some succour to disappointed youngsters. For instance, ‘Jack of Kent’ (if you don’t follow, you really should) encouraged lawyers to share their success stories despite having ‘poor’ A Level results.

    The important message is that hard work and resilience over the long term can trump one set of exams not going quite as well as they might have done.

    And great news about your daughter! You must be very proud.


  4. Thank you for this post. I’ve just got my A level results and, whilst I still got into my firm choice university, dropped two grades from what I was predicted. It is important to spread the message that all is not lost and perseverance and hard work will still get you a long way in life.


  5. Another gem Tom- I really like the Essex Chronicle extract (I remember them well from mu years in Chelmsford) especially -“Obviously enough, exams only measure what can be measured in exams!”. I recall my first experience of these RESULTS DAYS was in 1969 in Romford-47 years later they are still much the same, using the same unscientific spurious measures-HOW BIZARRE-HOW UNFAIR!

    Liked by 1 person

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