15 Aug '13

News How I did in my A-levels – by people who made it in life anyway

From a shame-inducing N-U-N to the relief of a grade C, celebrities recall opening their end-of-school results

Declan Curry, BBC business journalist

I grew up Catholic in Northern Ireland; nuns were familiar figures. As it turned out, that's what I got for my A-level grades too: N-U-N.

I expected to get 2 As and a B, at least. I'd been so blase about the results, I ignored the anxious throng who gathered outside the headmaster's house for their results at midnight and breezed into school the next morning, mentally making plans for the first university term.

The real results were a tremendous shock. Actually, the overriding emotion was shame that I'd disappointed so many people; my parents, my teachers and myself. And shame that it was my own fault. I'd been lazy. My dad wanted answers. In the absence of any easy ones, I just wanted to get drunk, which I did with my baffled but supportive classmates.

As things worked out, it wasn't the end of the world. I appealed the marking, expecting and getting no change. I had a re-think about the future, deciding if I really wanted to go to university. I did. So I went back into 6th form, put my head down and re-sat the lot. And got the grades I needed.

I gained some other things. I got an extra year at home with my baby sisters Emer and Joanna, a time that was irreplaceable. I learned I wasn't as clever as I thought I was, and there's no substitute for hard work. And I realised that you can build success from failure, if you've got a good friend willing to kick your backside hard enough. Thanks, Alan.

John Hegley, performance poet and comedian

I cannot recollect the circumstances of my A-level results. I'm pretty sure that they came through the downstairs letterbox of our chalet bungalow in Bristol. The upstairs letterbox existed for my fantasies of love letters from the hip chicks who were, in reality, after men in bands who were reading the likes of the Tibetan Book of the Motorcycle mechanic.

I do know that my parents were not au fait with the significance of the available grades. I don't think I'd yet applied for university, this was to come in the early stages of a Year Out. Although there is a lot of wooliness regarding these results, I would have known that something like three grade Cs would have secured me a university place, anything much lower; a polytechnic.

My father, with his French roots might have associated the latter with the famous Polytechnic of his native Paris. As I say, mum and dad were not familiar with the (poly)technical merits of A-level resolution, but they knew the difference between pass and fail, between doing well and doing horribly. My brother would have had a finer tuning but he was away at Luton airport finely tuning aeroplanes. And my sister Angela had her own concerns with O-level results about to appear.

Attempting to reconstruct my own resultage, the dog hears an approaching footfall of the postman and enters the usual rage, but I'm too quick for him and catch the batch in flutter. I know it's coming, if not today, then soon. It's today... "It's my A level results, Mum. I think." "Open them, then, Johnny boy. We want to know. How have you got on?" My news in English, Biology and Economics, is the same: Grade C... "'I've done quite well, Mum. I've not just passed.'... 'Good Boy.'" She'd really have said more than that. I was always aware that my parents were eager for me not to do horribly. She'd have made a fine fuss of me, but not as much as when I passed my eleven plus.

Samira Ahmed, journalist and broadcaster

I very nearly didn't go in to school to collect my results. I already had a two Es offer from St Edmund Hall, Oxford to read English, and I was desperate to leave school and move on. But it was a gorgeous sunny day and I was heading on a day trip to Stratford Upon Avon and something made me stop on the way to check. There was no mass excitement in those days. Hardly anyone there. I got two As (English Lit and German) and a B in History – which wasn't a surprise. I'd had a bad experience on one paper. But the B still niggles me. It was the only subject where my teachers had said they'd be gobsmacked if I didn't get an A. It was also a salutory lesson in how exams can still depend on the luck of the question setting.

With hindsight, the good work habits you develop studying for A-levels are a model for getting the best out of your degree and work life balance.

Interestingly when I started working as a journalist, I would regularly be reporting A-level results on the news. I noticed the growing trend for girls to outperform boys and yet it never seemed to translate into equal pay and status in the workplace. Over the years I formulated a theory. I think exams give hardworking women a false sense of security that they'll be judged on their ability, and employers will recognise and reward them for it. When I give career talks in schools I now always emphasise to students that it's much tougher out there.

However I think a lot of people who say A-levels don't matter are either very exceptional achievers in non-academic spheres, like Richard Branson, or often come from privileged backgrounds where they don't have to worry about money or finding a place in the world.

The best legacy of A-levels has been the depth of thinking and ideas they introduced me to. I recently made a whole half hour programme about procrastination; a concept I'd never even heard of till I studied Hamlet for A-level.

Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor, the University of Manchester

A-level results were not much on my mind in August 1973. I was in the middle of a fabulous holiday with Paul in a beautiful place called Sennen Cove in Cornwall. The sun shone continuously, our little tent seemed great fun and we travelled around in a lovely (if temperamental) convertible sports car.

Everything changed on the "day of the results". It didn't start well. I awoke in the early hours to the cold realisation that my teachers had been right – I should have worked harder and enjoyed myself less. Things didn't get better – cloudy skies for the first day, the car showed its worst temperament and the phone box I was due to call from to get my results (no mobiles then) didn't work.

I'd gained an A-level in art the previous year at art college (where I'd met Paul), but that wasn't going to launch my career. What my teachers called my "real A levels" were in maths, physics and chemistry – an odd combination with art, particularly as I had applied to university to study biology. I needed a B and two C's to get into my first choice – Queen Elizabeth College, University of London.

Eventually as the temperature rose and my heart sank further, I got through. I got two B's and a C. I was delighted and I thought I'd done pretty well. Today I would have no chance of getting into my own university with these grades!

So the holiday resumed. I had absolutely no career plans and could never have dreamed that 40 years on I would be running one of the UK's largest universities and this week worrying if our thousands of applicants for 2013 have gained their grades.

Which reminds me – we must go back to Sennen Cove one summer, but not in A-levels week.

Joe Thomas, actor best known for his role as Simon Cooper in The Inbetweeners

You expect to go really crazy when you get your exam results back. Actually, it's a curiously anti-climatic experience and you normally know more or less what you've got.

My exam results were slightly, but not dramatically, worse than they could have been – which is really the most anti-climatic thing in the world. At least if it'd been an absolute fuck-fest that would've been exciting. For me, it really just: "meh".

I've never worked out how well Simon does in his A-levels. We don't see him open his results, but we do see him write Carli all over his exam papers – so he probably hasn't done amazingly.

Simon's not a genius, but he's probably a bit more clever than he thinks. If anything was going to stop him doing well it would be his general fecklessness, lack of confidence and the fact that he spends too much time mooning around and being romantic. But then, sixth-form shouldn't be all about doing exams; it should be about having a laugh and being young. You've got amazing brain when you're young: it's supple and quick. Many older people wish they had it back.

Prof Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and interreligious studies, Edinburgh University

There was no choice of emails or texts in the 80s so I opened my A level results at my Sixth Form College. We lived very near this leafy college, so I walked alone not particularly anxious but with some suspicion that I had failed one of the subjects. And yes, I did fail one subject but got the overall results I needed for university. So disappointment and relief went hand in hand. Yet, I only really remember the utter elation I felt at my B in English Literature; all those nights alone with Shakespeare and Hardy had paid off. I came straight back home to my mother and told her that I was off to uni; her dream for me had come true.

I worked very hard at school and college but I was average at several subjects. My parents trusted me to study and revise even though I think for them, the process of learning mattered more than exams. Working in higher education I know that exams do matter but in the grand scheme of life, perhaps not as much as we often make out.

theguardian.com © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Read the full story in Guardian Education
Log in Join