It’s that time of year again when exam results are forthcoming, making or apparently breaking many a child’s future aspirations. GCSE’s today, A levels last week. It seemed to me that the A level media over-excitement seemed less this year, but as ever you can find stories of students who got umpteen A*s and didn’t get into the university of their choice (usually, but not necessarily, Oxbridge) or, by implication, the ones who did better than expected and were able to ‘trade up’ through Clearing this year. Of course, A level reform is just around the corner which may change things yet again in another year or two. The education world is certainly not sitting still, with reform happening at essentially every level simultaneously.
However, my point here is not to discuss education reform, or even A levels per se, but more to consider the issue of things not panning out the way one wants. I will, perhaps to your surprise, tie these ideas in with cricket. It’s not as wild a connection as you may think (and given that England has just won the Ashes – again – it’s good to sneak in a little pride for our cricketing prowess whatever the final Test may bring). In last Saturday’s papers Jonathan Agnew was complaining that ‘Technology in sport may mean kids fail to learn life’s lessons‘. In this case he was referring to the introduction of technology to review umpiring decisions (something the FA will also be doing this year, I believe, with goal-line technology to determine whether a goal was scored or not, after some dodgy refereeing decisions in the last season). Unfortunately, in the Ashes as far as I can tell, the introduction of this new technology has led to more controversy, not less. Furthermore, it is causing trouble because cricketers – by tradition that most honourable of players – are no longer behaving in an appropriately principled way: they aren’t ‘walking’ when they know they are out, since the umpiring decision may get it wrong in their favour so why throw their wicket away unnecessarily; additionally they are challenging decisions right, left and centre and not just accepting that the umpire’s decision is final. Well, it just isn’t cricket. Agnew argues that life is full of bad decisions and you might as well learn that from your cricket at school as anywhere else. Seeing adults not accept decisions in the full glare of the big screen at Lords, will do nothing to encourage youngsters to bite their lips and accept whatever fate/bad umpiring tosses their way.
And that’s why I think A level results bear some comparison. A level grades are increasingly challenged, but even without that not everyone gets what they feel they deserve. Maybe sometimes the marking does go astray, but additionally students go astray – they concentrated on all those topics that did not come up, they had a migraine (or worse were knocked off their bike or hit by a cricket ball, real life accidents that happened to undergraduate colleagues of mine) or their grandmother was rushed into hospital the night before. So many things can mar the crucial day and lead to unexpected problems. Equally everything may go splendidly, the ‘right’ questions come up, the student manages to pace themselves and suddenly they find they’re a grade or more up on expectations. This year for the first time there was a real opportunity for them to ‘trade up’ to another university if that was the way it was for them. This, in principle, should particularly benefit those students from less good schools, where traditionally teachers may tend to under- rather than over-estimate the grades earlier in the year. That ought to be good for access, although it’s far too early to say.
Nevertheless, looking beyond A levels (and cricket) there is no doubt that life doesn’t always turn out as expected. Anyone may fall at some big hurdle: a job interview, an exam, a grant proposal or a fellowship application. What Jonathan Agnew was trying to say is that it is good to recognize from an early age that it ain’t fair, it never will be 100% fair, and accepting this and making the best of any hand that is dealt is a useful skill to acquire at the soonest opportunity. Some people are better at picking themselves up than others, but I will say again, a point I have made previously on this blog, no one, however successful, has not been kicked in the teeth at least once and probably far more often. That may have been a fair kick or an extremely unfair one, they may not even know which kind it was, but kicking of some sort there will have been. Setbacks come in many different forms; some take longer to recover from than others. It is worth patting oneself on the back when one has made a comeback from, or found an alternative path around some obstacle in one’s path and/or career trajectory. An alternative path may mean recognizing that you never will be the world expert in (insert field of your choice here) or get that mega-bucks grant you dreamed of, or even be accepted on your dream course at university. But perhaps you can succeed at something different, take on a new role or get satisfaction from something you hadn’t previously considered. Sulking for long periods gets you nowhere. Feeling sorry for yourself for an hour, a day, a week or even longer may feel justified but if it drags on it will ultimately hold you back. Being prepared to regroup, exhibit resilience and look out for the next but maybe very different opportunity that comes your way will enable you to seize the moment when it does come along.
So, just as for the students who didn’t make the A level grades that they expected, for all of us we have to remember that life may feel unfair, it may feel tough even when there is no hint of unfairness, but all will never go completely according to one’s imagined internal life plan. Think of someone you really, really admire for all they’ve achieved and I am convinced, if you dug down, you would find that their life was not without its (maybe only temporary) setbacks. It’s daft to believe otherwise. Some of them may bear a visible grudge – though maybe they’re not the ones you admire – but many more will just have put on a smile, even if not particularly fast, and soldiered on until they’d worked to achieve some other form of success. It most certainly doesn’t mean one shouldn’t aim high, take risks and retain an optimistic take on life. Equally, it doesn’t mean one should be prostrated by the disappointments when they, inevitably, come from time to time.