Exam results and uncertain futures

22 Aug

Its that time of year again, when teenagers up and down the country hold their breath ahead of the arrival of the postman, or the uncertain trudge up to school to receive the results of their GCSE/A-level/Higher/whatever exams – exams they’d sat in a blur some two or three months previously.

The pressure of all that cramming, and endless testing after two years of learning tests even the best of us, and pushy schools and parents remind us that these are the most important exams of our lives, and if we manage to fuck them up the rest of our lives are redundant.

Bollocks to that.

Yes, these exam results will shape lives and be hugely influential, but if you’re piling the pressure on your kids to do well, and they’re struggling and you’ve missed that, then you aren’t doing things properly at all.

I will never forget the day of my A-level results, with some of the results coming to the house, and the rest being picked up at the school. My predicted two As and two Bs became a B, two Cs and an E. My folks were waiting in the car outside the school – already feeling like utter shit I passed the results to them “How did you get an E?” asked mum. The earth could have cracked open and swallowed me whole just then, and that confused parental frustration only compounded my own internal pain, I disappeared off to a friend’s house for a couple of days after that, utterly unable to celebrate, or face my parents.

There were remarkings requested, but the results stayed the same and I felt thick. I had been a good student, excelling at GCSE, but found the A-levels very difficult to get my head around, and pushing myself to take on a fourth subject – which had been a nightmare to fit into my timetable – was probably a step too far. I was trying to compromise, try and please my parents, who had endeavoured to instil me with common sense and a drive to achieve the best I could. Year of pursuing law were about to come to a crashing end. My work experience in solicitor’s firms, and my trip to Foxton near Cambridge to explore law were the base for what I thought I should do. But I’d slipped an Art A-level in their too because I had been rather good at that, and I’d struggled with a desire to go into the arts all along.

Failing to reach the expectations that others have of your isn’t particularly easy to deal with. I myself was always useless on the sports field, so I never felt the crushing disappointment that comes with a thrashing by the opposition simply because I never expected to win in the first place. Academic achievements are in many ways more personal, and a critique not just on your abilities but your entire state of mind.

Arguably the most important exams you’ll sit are your 11+/Transfer Tests in primary school. They dictate what secondary education you have which will in turn decide which (if any) tertiary education you get. Assuming you’re past that, then try not to worry.

There’s a shed load of pressure put on both GCSE and A-levels. With GCSE’s you spin a dozen subjects including at least two you really couldn’t care less about but are obligated to take because of school’s desire to broadly educate. My advice is to look at what you enjoyed and were good at when selecting your A-level choices. If you have a natural flair or ability it would seem to be a good idea to pursue those subjects for A-level, or college or whatever else you go on to do. You’ll also make life easier on yourself come the next stage.

Any failings can be corrected. You can always resit exams, and later on if you decide that there was a subject that you really wanted to do and couldn’t because of timetable difficulties or something, you can always study that in college. I took an AS level in History of Art after I went to university – it was something that wasn’t offered at my school as I recall. I got an A out of it, which I was rather chuffed by considering the poor results I had during my original examinations.

As it turns out my A-level results meant that my first choice of uni turned me down. My reserve however were still happy to take me, even though my results didn’t meet their minimum requirement. So there is still hope. The confirmation somehow didn’t reach me, and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks into the term when the uni phoned mum to find out where I was, as I hadn’t registered that we discovered the mistake. Probably the best move all round though as I decided a complete change of career and turned my back on law.

I spent the next year working as a kitchen porter in the Culloden hotel in Cultra, a useful and life-informing experience. I reapplied for university, for a drama course at Queen’s which I was accepted for unconditionally, and resulted in me moving into Drama and Film and an eventual First for my BA.

But the reality is university isn’t for everyone. My siblings make more money than I do in a year and have regular jobs right now with decent wages, and their university performance was either less-than-stellar or non-existent.

You simply can’t let other’s expectations or achievements dictate what you yourself do or the direction which you should go in. There are loads of options, and no matter what your results, there are always options. The number of filmmakers I’ve spoken to who couldn’t give a shit about my film degrees and would rather I had more hands on experience is enlightening. You don’t need a qualification to write a book, or paint a picture or take a photograph. And even if you do need a qualification there are more options than school and university.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your careers advisor, or other people already working in the field. The best things don’t come easy anyway, and particularly if you’re the arty sort, you can always channel the experiences and the angst into your work later.


Parents – please try and remember that no matter how disappointed and upset you are when your offspring fails to get the hoped for results, they are undoubtedly even more troubled by the outcome. Give them a hug and try and be supportive – remember, exams and results are emotional experiences as it is, and you don’t need to tip them over into something else. You could end up contributing to a period of depression or even suicidal thoughts, and you don’t want to do that.
Your kids are becoming adults, and they need to learn from their experiences!


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