Success is not confined to one-size-fits-all

It’s A-level week and as well as the obligatory pictures of winsome girls flaunting their academic accomplishments, three other stories are certain to put in an appearance. Alongside the ogling, there will be guaranteed wailing over grade validity, university places and the proportion of top marks bagged by state schools. The annual August hullabaloo, however, rarely extends to two other matters.

The first is teacher anxiety. Yes, of course, it’s all about the kids – brief congratulations followed by eager reminders that A levels are worthless, student debt is endless and the chances of a meaningful career are hopeless. But so absorbed is the nation in its ritual destruction of young dreams that it regularly forgets to pay attention to the teachers who were foolish enough to foster them.

Exam season is tough for teachers and getting tougher. Naturally, they have always worried about how their pupils will perform. But for headteachers in particular, as exam results become the only measure by which their schools are judged, so the pressure rises (see pages 16-17). A few grades off target and the chances of getting prematurely acquainted with a pension become a lot higher. In the warm, post-Olympics afterglow, as we bask in the knowledge that we are as suited to hosting the world’s greatest spectacle as Belarusian shot-putters are to hosting banned substances, couldn’t we afford to expend a little goodwill on our nail-biting teachers?

The second issue is just as neglected. Our annual angst-fest over A levels betrays a terribly narrow conception of success. Success is a string of As. Success is Oxbridge. Success is a disadvantaged kid putting aside Dizzee Rascal for Dryden.

This is not an anti-elitist rant. It is undeniable that the higher a child climbs the academic tree, the wider his or her horizons. Pupils should be stretched to do their utmost. It’s unforgivable if ambition is stifled because it doesn’t fit a teacher’s ideological prejudices. Nor should any pupil leave school without core knowledge. But should children be told that success lies exclusively through a door marked Girton or Balliol? Are they failures if they go to another university or to no university at all? Successful schools aren’t only those that garnish middle-class pupils with a set of A*s but also those like the Springfields Academy (see pages 20-22), which takes the rejected and excluded and equips an astonishing percentage of them with good GCSEs.

We hear a lot, rightly, about deprived children denied the opportunity to excel academically. We hear sod all about the middle-class students frogmarched into law and medicine even though their inclinations and talents lie elsewhere. Even Michael Gove, a man who delights in pupils’ familiarity with Ovid, Calvin and Boyle, must occasionally wonder at his colleagues in Parliament and conclude: “Nadine, you would have been far happier as a car mechanic…”

Success should not be limited by adult prejudice. The point of education is to liberate potential wherever it may lie; to give pupils options they never realised they had. We should delight in the fulfilled hairdresser as much the vaulting architect. So if one of those winsome A-level students decides to emulate the work of Vidal rather than Siegfried Sassoon, we should be catholic enough to think, “Good for her”.