“I left school at 14 and look at me now: I’m a millionaire!”
“I didn’t get anything higher than a C in my GCSEs but now I’m a celebrated author…”
“I’m rich and famous and I only got one O level!”
As predictable as testing season arriving in schools is the abundance of people telling our students that exam performance does not matter. There are even articles with titles like “These famous people prove you don’t need to do well at school to be highly successful!” and “10 Celebrities who are winning at life despite failing school!” to re-enforce the point.
Most recently we had Ridley Scott accepting his BAFTA fellowship award with these lines: “At school, I’d achieved the distinction of being bottom of the class for the 4th year running…The education system of the time allowed me to apply for art school with one GCSE. That could never happen today.”
While he didn’t go so far as to poke out his tongue and say “And just look at me now!” – and he did say nice things about teachers – it did set me pondering.
We can probably all think of those pupils who, for whatever reason, might be following in the footsteps of the aforementioned famous folk.
And the temptation might be to encourage them, even to attempt to raise their aspirations, by pointing to their heroes and saying, “Look! It doesn’t really matter if you fail your exams because you too could have all these riches.”
But does this really raise aspirations? Or does it just feed pipe dreams?
In reality, that lad in Year 9 who thinks himself something of a rapper, is, in all likelihood, not going to be the next Drake or Stormzy.
Even your school football team’s top goal scorer, scouted by several reputable clubs’ training schemes, has an arduous task ahead to make it all the way to their first team.
And that girl who’s a bit of a dab-hand with iMovie is going to face stiff competition if she wants to earn a living as a YouTuber.
These qualification-light celebrities setting themselves up as role models are doing nothing more than peddling the lie that “If you can dream it you can do it!”
But surely there is more to life than exam results?
Perhaps it isn’t so bad to be showing some of our students that – despite their struggles in the school system – there are still avenues available to them in which they can be successful. Perhaps these seemingly vacuous quotations will motivate some children to achieve something great in their life.
Maybe it’s not such a pipe dream after all.
And it might be that teachers are not the ones who should be attempting to predict the futures of our students based on their academic prowess.
It’s possible that there is a middle line to walk here.
With some form of education being compulsory until 18, our young people need the right help and encouragement to make the best of their time and the most of their opportunities. It’s best to leave dreaming to sleep time and to encourage our young people to use the waking hours to work hard at both their work and their particular interests.
Raising aspirations with balance
Sure, we can highlight the celebrities who did well despite not doing so well at school – I personally know some successful and well-off people who left school early – but we should balance those stories out with ones about those who worked hard to gain success. The latter will be a significantly larger group of people.
Barack Obama might have said it best when he pointed out that "the future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create".
To achieve success, our pupils are most likely to need both good grades and minds which are capable of dreaming up innovative ways to apply their learning.