A-level results: 'Don't let your grades define you'

There is a lot of focus on A-level grades, says Yvonne Williams – but not enough on the skills that have been acquired

Yvonne Williams

A-level results day: All the focus is on the grades - but what about the important skills that the students have developed, asks Yvonne Williams

Dear A-level students,

It must seem a long time since you completed your last exam paper and walked away from your desk into the sunshine, drained of all the revision that had kept you up night after night from April to the middle of June – if not before. You probably won’t even remember what you wrote.

Hopefully you’ve been able to put results to the back of your mind until the beginning of this week, when the education press cranked itself into action with articles on what to do if you miss out on the grades you need for your university place or your apprenticeship. 

And goodness knows what social media has been doing to your nerves. It’s enough to disrupt your sleep, make your mouth dry out and bring you out in a sweat long before the menopause strikes.

A-level results day: A feeling of anti-climax

The school hall is a very public arena in which to open the envelope with your results. Parents and teachers scrutinise your expression. And there’s bound to be at least one person with a camera to capture the moment. 

Then, by midday, when the media circus has packed up and gone home, the excitement is over. Those three or four grades calibrate your performance at the end of two years’ study. You know where you stand, barring the odd grade review or two. It might all feel a bit like an anti-climax. 

In the long run, it’s not the grades that define you. It’s the truest cliché about results days that I know. 

What you don’t value enough are the skills you have picked up and honed along the way, and the wider, deeper knowledge that you have acquired. The slow-burn release of the A-level learning experience is one that you don’t recognise until much later – perhaps when you write a CV for a job application, or when you review your performance in a working environment.

So, on this day of days, win or lose, you should congratulate yourself on what you can do much better than when you first started two years ago. You might think that essays are tedious things, designed uniquely to torture hapless A-level students. But beyond your discomfort are the very practical applications for the process that you have taken so much for granted.

Skills that set you up for life

Almost all your subjects have required in-depth research. The written essay requires you to think very logically and produce a reasoned argument. You have to construct points and support your reasoning. You have to prioritise one piece of information or evidence over another, sequence your points and then, in your summary, you provide an evaluation. This collection of skills can set you up for life. 

Whatever you do beyond education, you will have to write reports to inform and persuade important people to back your venture or allow you to put into practice your strategy. It’s not so hard to move from an essay to a report. In fact, it’s quite easy.

In a world where artificial intelligence will sequester many of the jobs and careers we currently take for granted, you will need to be persuasive and creative to be just one step ahead. Just think how much A-level study has increased your word power and improved your expression on paper and in discussion. You will have a much greater sense of audience simply through writing for your teacher and for an examiner. 

It will be your fluency and your ability to engage with people’s desires and ideals that will launch you higher in a career. In other words, your ability to do what artificial intelligence, still in its infancy, cannot do.

You have been amazing

In geography, your field studies have honed your observational skills, your deductive powers, not to mention your statistical analysis and ability to arrive at a perceptive evaluation of your findings. You have synthesised theoretical studies with your own practical experience. You have been amazing.

In the various branches of scientific enquiry, you have carried out experiments – safely – and survived. You have recorded your observations in tables, graphs and reports. In your writing, you have been succinct and precise, recognising the importance of avoiding vague and ambiguous statements. All of this has made you much more accurate, and your extrapolations, therefore, more valuable to others who have access to your findings.

Think about how as a history, politics, economics or sociology student you have engaged both with trends of the past and with the present, across continents, alliances and treaties. You understand through the humanities disciplines how society ticks, and how we can learn from what is happening in social groups globally and temporally. 

There was a time when university students made up a very small percentage of 18- to 21-year-olds. This meant that A levels were valued for the high level of knowledge and skill they imbued in workplace entrants. Employers were much more grateful for the content of the course than they are today.

You may actually have felt a little bit cheated, because the opportunities to use all your skills and all your knowledge in the exams were very limited and possibly rather shallow. 

Don’t worry. Life will supply more ingenious tests for you, and you can use the hard and soft skills you’ve learned then. You have done much more, and you are much more, as a consequence of your two years of A-level study.

So, as you finish the last bite of your celebratory meal, consider the last line of Derek Walcott’s poem, Love After Love:

“Sit. Feast on your life.”

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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