Congratulations to all the A-Level students who have collectively earned a record-breaking set of results this week. Commiserations to those who did not achieve what they wanted. And a big “Do me a favour, mate” to all the clowns who emerge at this time of year to tell us that things were much harder when they were at school, and that you get a GCSE just for spelling your name right these days.
Unbelievably, on so many levels, the current Education Secretary is still Gavin Williamson. He has been in the news today for claiming not to remember his A-Level results. In an interview with LBC host Nick Ferrari he went full Marcel Proust on his remembrance of that glorious day, returning to his 6th Form College, opening the envelope, and receiving confirmation that he could study Social Science at Bradford University. For a boy from Scarborough, that was the big city. When asked, repeatedly, by Ferrari what his results were, he stalled, diverted and eventually claimed that he could not remember. I don’t believe him. His behaviour is par for the course with government ministers since 2019. You get to be a government minister just for spelling “Brexit” correctly these days.
Williamson claimed (or pretended) that he could hardly be expected to remember: it was 27 years ago. I got my A-Level results more than a decade before that and have not forgotten them. Unlike the current Education Secretary, I am happy to share the information: 2 ‘A’s and a ‘B’ (History A, Maths A, English B).
I’ll go further. Uncertain about how well I’d do in my exams, I also took 2 ‘S’ Levels (‘S’ for Special, I believe), in English and History. A couple of us also did some additional lessons to prep for Maths ‘S’ Level, but you could only sit that level of exam in two subjects. The way these extra exams were presented to us was as follows: they tested your natural ability in a subject more than your diligence in completing the coursework. There were 3 grades: 1, 2, and U. If you got a ‘1’, it suggested that you were a natural. A ‘C1’ or even a ‘D1’ might be regarded more favourably by some universities than an ‘A2’: it marked you out as someone who didn’t just plod along doing their coursework, you had a gift for the subject. I got ‘2’ rather than ‘1’ in both of my ‘S’ Levels. If I’d known that was likely, I wouldn’t have bothered with them. Most of my classmates didn’t. So, strictly speaking, my results were: History A2, Maths A, English B2, and (disappointingly for me) there was no way of hiding the numerical elements in those grades.
Still, as recorded more than once on these pages (most recently in this piece about Vegans and Oxbridge graduates), I attended my university of choice. I went back to school for an extra term after A-Levels, sat 7th-term exams and was interviewed by the late Norman Stone. I scraped in to read History, as a Commoner rather than as a Scholar or Exhibitioner. If my place had been dependent solely on A-Levels, or if I had applied to a different college, or to read a different subject, I probably wouldn’t have got in.
During my student days, HRH Prince Edward won a place at the same university (at a different college), with lower grades than I had achieved. My mother was very taken by a comedy sketch that featured on TV at the time. I never saw it, but she told me about it with great enthusiasm. HRH and his bodyguard were discussing the latter’s education, and the fact that he hadn’t attended the same university. “Why didn’t you go to Cambridge?” HRH asked. “I couldn’t sir,” the bodyguard replied, “I only got 2 ‘A’s and ‘B’.”