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Jack, the Beanstalk and A Level Results
Sue Noonan

You are eighteen years old and you are waiting for the post to thud menacingly on the mat. You tried to study hard but you had to go out with friends sometimes just to relieve the stress of it all and anyway you couldn’t afford to go out that much. When you did go out you felt guilty about it, you could have done some extra work.

Now you wish you had been a recluse for the last two years. Then you could just sit back and be cool about your results. The worst part is that the whole family is waiting for your results and will be on the phone all day. Whatever your results, Uncle Chris will say that it’s not worth a toss anyway because anyone can pass exams these days and Auntie Julie will light up, offer you one in front of your mum to embarrass you and tell you she didn’t need A levels so why worry.

Everyone offers you advice that you don’t really want because they end up telling you their life story about how it was years ago. You’ve already done history at school and don’t need a repeat. You are eighteen years old and just want to fast forward to twenty-five. You would have your life sorted by then. Wouldn’t you? The A level results are better than ever (again) for the nineteenth consecutive year. Surprise, surprise, the sceptics, the academics and the usual sad establishment rebels are out in force each preaching their own truths about higher education. Chris Woodhead tells the Daily Telegraph this week that ‘…Universities are now so desperate to pack student bums on to vacant academic seats that examination grades have become and embarrassing irrelevance.

You want to study golf, or curry making, or knitting? Fine, there is a course for you and the odds are that, if you can read a sentence or two and sign your own name, you will be welcomed with open arms’. Scathing criticism indeed from graduate of the past to potential graduates of the future. And how did you guide your students Chris when you were teaching? With a combination of hands-on guidance and pastoral care I suppose?

Such pronouncements will not encourage students or teachers and do absolutely nothing for educators who do not have the power that such media opportunities can wield. Such opportunities carry with it the responsibility, particularly of an ex-educator, that could be put to more constructive use. In the last nineteen years many aspects of our daily lives have improved without the furore that surrounds our education system. It seems that for teachers and pupils it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Speaking of which, please, please someone do something about that Julie Birchill. In her recent Guardian article she doles out advice to worried 18 year olds with the charm and wisdom of an ageing rebel, claiming the moral highground by virtue of being ‘The bright child of two factory workers’. She recommends, ‘throw your books into the nearest lake and, if your parents object, tell them to go take a running jump too. Then chuck a few things – a thong, a song, a few magic beans – into a spotted hanky and run away to seek fame and fortune or even good plain fun, pronto. For in my experience, those who can, do; those who can’t go to college’.

That advice is really just an update on ‘in my day…’ and ‘I got on alright without A levels/university/qualifications’ and so on. The kind of advice that young people get all the time from people who tell of their own experiences which worked for them. The kind of advice that Ms Birchill accused her teachers of giving, the mantra of ‘further education which was invoked by teachers…I might be allowed to go to university and escape my horrible working-class life!’. The world has changed in the last two decades and the pressures on young people to achieve have never been greater and opportunities fewer. Students who learn what they are taught and pass what they are set do not need criticism of good grades. Students who have not achieved such success do not need criticism – it is too late and of no value at this stage.

This is the time when young people need support, encouragement, not blame and recriminations. Nor do they need to be told that it doesn’t matter and to run away from life and seek fame and fortune. Life is not a fairytale, Jack and the Beanstalk is. What young people need is support and encouragement to find their own way in life and make their own, sometimes difficult choices even if that means pursuing a goal by other means, be it higher education or not or even changing the goals. Those who can do; those who can’t were probably told that they couldn’t or shouldn’t bother.

© Sue Noonan 2001
email: (Sue's first piece for Hacks)
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