Recently it was A level results day, ten years since I picked up my As levels and 9 years on from my A level results day in 2007- the day when I learned that despite almost messing up sixth form, I still somehow managed to get into university. Now, my younger sister, 10 years since I made that journey into school to pick up results has done the same, so it’s a more poignant time than ever to write about A levels, working out what the hell to do with that future ahead of you and some things that I’d recommend you don’t repeat.
Back in 2005, I wandered into school to pick up the first of those brown envelopes- my GCSE’s. My predicted grades varied, as someone who struggled with Maths, science and any practical subjects, but I did well in predominantly essay based courses. This confused many teachers, because I wasn’t good at ‘everything’ and because of this, they doubted my abilities to go onto sixth form. I did well in my GCSES’s in the end, even passing Maths (albeit by one mark, but we don’t talk about that) and moved onto study four A levels as planned.
In 2007, now 18 I was there again, with a brown envelope but faced with almost failing some A levels- as someone who was predicted A’s and B’s but came out with a couple of E’s, I was embarrassed, upset and confused. I was probably at one of the best places possible to get these results, being away at Folkworks Youth Summer school in Durham, and surrounded by friends was what I needed at the time. I hadn’t done as well as I could have, or was certainly capable of achieving- and felt that I had really let myself down. The truth being that I still got a place at university to study History and Politics, so I couldn’t complain too much- and I didn’t. When I returned to Folkworks after collecting my results, people asked how I’d done- and I just told them I had got into uni, they didn’t need to know about the E’s that behind closed doors I was devastated by. I remember one girl, who’s birthday was on results day, getting four A’s and being featured in the local paper, with her birthday balloons and a big grin on her face. I was slightly envious, and made to feel that my results weren’t good enough and didn’t deserve to be applauded- I still got into my first choice of uni, so in the grand scheme of things shutting up and just getting on with it was probably the best strategy. I hadn’t considered then, that everything I’d done, experienced in life and achieved wasn’t recorded in this brown envelope and certainly didn’t compare to those who were good at everything, who the teachers seemed to love. Winning a writing competition and travelling to Slovakia is something that no one in my year had done- but I had ticked off my list by the time I was 17. I was able to write for England, and to write well- my personal statement was the size of a short story, something that isn’t useful in the context of keeping to a specific number of characters, but useful in many other ways. I also learned very early on to stand up for myself and those around me, developing an innate sense of justice and fairness- something others are often scared to do, but a skill that has always come naturally to me, and as I’ve grown up I’ve developed more tactful ways of being heard. My favourite moment was aged 15 when I piped up ‘I can speak for myself thank you very much’ during an SEN review meeting, after being asked if I wanted an advocate to ‘fight my corner’ as it was so clearly put.
The two years of A levels were probably one of the hardest of my life, I basically went off the rails- not in the sense of partying every night, although I sometimes wish I had done as that would have been more fun, but that I basically just stopped, and my brain became full of stuff that wasn’t conducive to sitting four A levels. I remember writing in a diary that I hadn’t achieved everything I wanted to achieve by 18, I wish I knew what this was, because going on a rampage of self pity wasn’t healthy or useful to anyone. My difficulties with AS’s and an upsetting A level music performance when I was torn apart- made me work out that throughout my life and in the world of work I was going to struggle, even with my fiddle playing- the one thing that had kept my mental health up, someone could pick out flaws, and this made me feel quite down. I’d picked up on people’s lower expectations throughout my life, and when I saw a less than helpful careers adviser, who told me that I wouldn’t be able to do an English degree, because I had taken A level language and not literature- my plans were crushed, although now I realise that he couldn’t speak anymore rubbish if he tried.
Looking back on my years in education, I wish that I’d worked harder during those crucial two years at sixth form and listened to myself more than others around me, but I also know that my A level results didn’t stop me doing what I do now. similarly I could have got a 2:1 or even a first degree, if by second year I hadn’t just stopped too (I can’t think of a better way to describe it) -but it certainly hasn’t held me back. If there’s one bit of advice I’d give to 18 year old’s holding that brown envelope and wondering what the hell to do with their future, is to do what you enjoy and can do well, I’ve never been highly paid but I love what I do, I’ve developed the skills needed in the job market now that I’ve worked for a few years and met people who have helped me to do that. I’ve also been very clear about things that I’ll find difficult or even impossible to do with my employers. I know I’m fortunate to work for such a supportive organisation, and not everyone is as lucky as me- but what I will say is these exam results are only the start of what you can do, and that people and plans often change- but it’s also okay to feel what you feel now, people will tell you that a piece of paper doesn’t matter, but I know that it does, it did to me and it will to you. It’s important to have that time to be the most difficult person to be around if you weren’t as happy as you could be with results. I was devastated with my A levels at first, but then I realised that there’s more to me than my two E’s and two C’s…