Was the National Record of Achievement a colossal lie?

Thousands of pupils diligently completed their National Record of Achievement. But what happened to those burgundy folders, asks Ryan Wilson

Couple leafing through a folder, over glasses of wine

If you were at school during the 1990s, the chances are you were told a colossal lie. It relates to an A4 burgundy leatherette folder. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a wine list from a downmarket Italian restaurant, but the gold letters emblazoned on the front confirm that is actually a National Record of Achievement (NRA). 

The idea was that the NRA would house all your certificates, for everything from A levels to the cycling-proficiency test you passed when you were 11.

Its crowning glory would be a personal statement, written in your very best handwriting, where you declared that you were enthusiastic and hardworking and in your spare time enjoyed socialising with friends.

It’s a noble enough idea, but here’s the whopper: we were told, repeatedly and strenuously, that the folder would be vital for every job interview we attended until our dying day. Unless we took it seriously, so the lecture went, we could look forward to a lifetime of dole payments and untold misery.

The biggest lie of our time

I recently stumbled upon my NRA while visiting my parents, and posted on Twitter about how it had sat, untroubled by the light of day, in a drawer at their house for 19 years. 

The response was immediate and colourful. This first respondent agreed that National Record of Achievement propaganda was surely the biggest lie of our time: the original Project Fear.

Another questioned the need for the word “national”, as presumably there was never any intention to collate them all in some central repository of our countrywide questionable achievements. 

It wasn’t all bad though: one Twitter user Lauren had fond memories of being presented with hers by Dean Gaffney.

My tweet also prompted those of a certain age to revisit some of the proud achievements they had listed in their personal statements. Among them were having participated in a day trip to Flamingo Land, an enthusiasm for making cupcakes with coffee-flavoured icing, and having adopted a gorilla. 

One proud – and rather bold – teenager made the claim that they hoped to make it as a breakdancer, despite never having tried breakdancing.

Steve focused on his week’s work experience at Radio Clwyd, and spent two paragraphs outlining its exact location in Mold. Zena discussed how proud she was of herself for going down a zipwire at a carnival. I expect employers were tripping over themselves to hire such talent.

Blank pages

As for whether NRAs have been any use – one distinct disadvantage of the plastic wallets contained within the folder seems to have been that they removed all print from any pages put inside them. The upshot was that you were left with a dossier of blank pages, which is scarcely ideal. 

One correspondent relayed that she had handed her Record of Achievement to an interviewer, only for them to laugh so hard that they snorted. Another said that the look he got when he handed over his NRA was “like you would give to a three-year-old who had just handed you another painting for the fridge”.

And where are these thousands and thousands of folders of dreams now? One person described how they threw theirs out, only to have it returned because someone found their address in it. Steve swears that some are being used as menu holders in a restaurant in Greece, with the luxurious gold letters cruelly scratched off the front. 

In homes up and down the UK, they are being used as mouse mats, dinner trays and takeaway-menu holders. 

David talked about how he was asked to officiate at his brother’s wedding. With no lectern, and not wanting to read from a piece of paper, the National Record of Achievement came into its own as an official-looking document folder.

Two other honourable mentions. Firstly to Sarah, who confessed that she doctored her friend’s personal statement so that it talked about how much she loved “recycling” rather than “cycling”. And to Harry who asked that we spare a thought for the teachers who had to keep a straight face while trying to convince us that the NRA was as valuable as a signed first edition of the Bible.

The National Record of Achievement scheme was wound down and eventually quietly dropped altogether in the 2000s. But it’s only fair to say that a good smattering of people have diligently kept updating their folders through the decades.

Among them is Emma, who told me that she has taken hers to every job interview and has always been given whatever job she was going for. Maybe Emma has the last laugh, after all.

Ryan Wilson taught English in a North London comprehensive until a couple of years ago. He now writes about education issues 

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