Do bad exam results matter?

Results day tomorrow, and I predict that Social Media will be full of comments by celebrities telling students that exam results don’t matter that much because ‘I failed my exams, but I still found success’.

This happened last year during The Guardian’s live chat following the release of  the 2016 GCSE results. The chat even supplied a link to a list of ‘famous school flops‘, which include the big three examples of ‘success despite educational failure’ – Alan Sugar, Richard Branson and Simon Cowell, but I can’t really see the relevance of these examples to today’s youth – all they demonstrate is that white men born before 1960 had a chance of being successful if they failed their exams, hardly representative.

There are a few comments from younger celebrities who claim that getting bad exam results are not the end of the world, because despite bad exam results, they have managed to build successful careers. 

From radio presenter Darryl Morris (no, I’d never heard of him either, although I do recognise him):

Daryll Morris.jpg

Darryl Morris – with 10 year’s of hobby-experience, a cheeky-chappy personality and a lot of luck, you too can be successful, even if you failed your exams!

I missed out on my desired GCSE results because I spent most of my revision time practising at the school radio station. I have no English qualifications and dropped out of a college that reluctantly accepted me to pursue a radio career – now I am a presenter and writer….You don’t need anybody’s permission to be successful – it comes from your passion, commitment and ambition.

From Ben Fogle, presenter of every outdoor program the BBC has made this century:

‘Exams left me feeling worthless and lacking in confidence. The worse I did in each test, the more pressure I felt to deliver results that never came. When I failed half my A-levels, and was rejected by my university choices, I spiralled into a depression.

The wilderness rescued me. I have been shaped by my experiences in the great outdoors. Feeling comfortable in the wild gave me the confidence to be who I am, not who others want me to be… it strengthened my character and set me back on track.’

Ben Fogle.jpg

Ben Fogle – If you’re independently schooled, screamingly middle class and very lucky, then you could also network your way into a TV presenting career, even if you fail your exams

Finally, Jeremy Clarkson tweeted: “If your A-level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”

The problem with the above is that every single one of the above examples may well be talented and passionate about what they do, as well as hard-working, but IN ADDITION, they either exploited what you might call ‘alternative opportunity structures’, they networked their way to success, or they were just plain lucky, in the sense of being in the right place at the right time: 

Morris was presenting radio from a very young age, so already had lots of experience by the time he was snapped up by the BBC at 16 – so this guy’s ‘alternative opportunity structure’ was through school and local community radio – a very niche way to success.

TBH I don’t know whether Clarkson networked himself onto Top Gear – but he went to the same fee-paying private school (Repton School) as the executive producer of the program, so even if the old-school tie wasn’t part of it, he would’ve oozed cultural and social capital because of his class background.

As for Fogle not only was he independently schooled (so culturally well prepared for his future at the BBC which is chock-full of the privately schooled), -he was also lucky enough to have been at the right age/ fitted the profile for the BBC’s Castaway 2000 series, which catapulted him into fame, he’s also quite charming, which no doubt helps!

So all these case studies show us is that if you want to be successful, then exam results don’t matter IF you have alternative opportunity structures to exploit, AND/ OR you have sufficient social and cultural capital to be able to be able network your way into a job. 

This important qualification (excuse the pun) to the ‘exam results don’t matter argument’ is backed up by Frances Ryan who points out that such comments tend to come from upper middle class adults, for whom as teenagers, poor exam results mattered less because their parents’ wealth and their higher levels cultural and social capital opened up other opportunities for them.

However, Ryan argues that for teenagers from poorer backgrounds, getting good exam results may well be the only realistic opportunity  they have of getting into university and getting a graduate job, which, on average, will still pay you more over the course of a life time than a non-graduate job.

A classic way in which this inequality of opportunity manifests itself is that wealthy parents are able to support their 19-20 year old teenagers to either do another year of A levels, or an access course, or an unpaid internships for a few months or a year to give them a second chance, poorer kids don’t have these options, not unless they want to go into crippling levels of debt.

So – do bad exam results matter? Judging by the analysis above, it matters more if you’re from a working class background because education and qualifications provide the most likely path way to social mobility…..but less so from an upper middle class background.

Having said all of that, if you’ve woken up to the idea that a normal life is basically just a bit shit, then exam results don’t really matter at all. Trust me, jobs aren’t all that! Why not try one of the following alternatives instead:

  • Do voluntary work
  • Become an eco-anarchist
  • Become an artist
  • Go travelling
  • Go homeless
  • Become a monk
  • Live with your parents for the rest of your life.
  • Learn to live without money.

For more ideas about alternative career paths, you might like this post: alternative careers: or how to avoid working for a living.

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