It's A-levels results day - and so for us at The Hegemon, it's Clearing day, when we scoop up all those unfortunate enough to have missed their predicted grades. This year, Zoot Horn is slaving over a hot phone - though it may be a quieter year than most as our numbers have been cut despite a massive upsurge of applicants.
The results show another rise in pass rates - up to 97.6, with more achieving higher grades, not that they'll be coming here. The newspapers, as predicted, will spend today and tomorrow printing pictures of posh teenage girls, while the comment pages will be filled with 'it's so dumbed-down, A-levels meant something in my day' pieces by upper-middle class privately educated people.
Frankly, I've no idea whether A-levels are easier or harder. I do know that they aren't very good preparation for university though - because teachers are having to produe statistical marvels, schools are teaching to the test, and so produce students utterly dependent on skeleton essays, model answers and the like: independent thinking and in many cases learning for pleasure are marginalised. The result is that quite a lot of people starting university aren't enthusiastic about the subject or equipped for the (theoretically) independent task of educating themselves. Instead, too many are dependent on lectures and reluctant to take risks, which is a shame. The hardest task for teachers of first-year students (sorry, now Level 4 for some reason) is to communicate a sense of the fun and wonder available for those who wander off the beaten track.
Anyway. Time for a flashback to Clearing Day 1993. I'm at home, staring at my A-levels results. I'm not exactly overjoyed, but not too surprised either. The family isn't too shocked, but that's because my headmaster and I agreed on just one thing: that I was rubbish and wouldn't do very well. I found this out when I was interviewed by a very kind man at Derby University. After a long chat about books lubricated by the gin and tonic my aunt had fed me at lunch beforehand, he said to me 'Well, we'll definitely offer you a place but I'm sure you'll get better grades than your head claims, and go somewhere else, and you're nothing like he says'. Emboldened, I asked what else the august clergyman had written: he'd basically claimed that I was a troublemaker who didn't deserve a place at any university. He was a notorious bully and I made a point of redoubling my efforts to annoy him for the rest of my time there. He's dead now, so I win.
So, it was back to school, where my teachers (a brilliant trio fo eccentrics) wrote to all the places to which I'd applied with an alternative reference. Then it was all down to me. Which is where the plan hit a slight snag, because basically I was a dumb-ass at this point, and a dumb-ass doing the wrong A-levels. English was fine - all I ever wanted to do was read books and talk about them, so that wasn't a problem.
French would be OK too. I'd taken it because at GCSE level, I was predicted a fail, so as a joke, I said 'If I get an A, I'll do it for A-level'. As intended, my teacher and the rest of the class fell about laughing. They weren't laughing when the A duly arrived. A-level French was brilliant - odd books, great films, good food and talk from my 60s survivor teacher. Unfortunately, I have a talent for self-destruction, and misunderstood the exam paper and dropped an entire grade by answering two questions from the same section rather than one from each. Like I say, dumb-ass.
The real problem was Latin. I'd transferred to this school fairly late, and parental interfering meant that I took Latin without any enthusiasm or knowledge. The teacher was a nice man, but didn't actually bother doing any, well, teaching. So I learned literally nothing: revision consisted of me trying to memorise the English translation and the first and last words of each paragraph in Latin in the hope that I could churn it out. Needless to say, it didn't work. Nor did my repeated attempts to tell people that I didn't know any Latin and really needed help.
So along came results day, and the scores were as I'd expected. A in English, no A in French thanks to my own stupidity, and an embarrassing Latin grade, upgraded on appeal to a merely 'awful'. There was a silver lining, however. The school and parents had insisted that I apply to a lot of places I didn't want to attend: Cambridge, Durham, St. Andrews: the first two had already thankfully told me to piss off, and I'd missed the grades for St. Andrews, which was and is a finishing school for the Conservative Party's young fogey golf-playing children.
I had one ace up my sleeve: I'd scraped through an audition for Trinity College Dublin's Drama and Theatre course, but for various complicated reasons that didn't come off either. So Clearing Day saw me sitting by the phone wondering what grades were needed for turf-cutting or postal worker. Then a softly spoken Scotsman called, from Bangor University. We discussed why I'd arsed things up so badly, chatted about books for a few minutes and the call ended with me assured of a place and full of affection for the Kindest Man In The World. Now all I had to do was work out where Bangor was.
Bangor suited me perfectly: the best of friends, a great quality of education, mountains, sea, a thriving students union, the best record shop ever, plenty of trouble to get involved in and everything worked out brilliantly, unless you blame them for my present location…
Clearing might be the making of you - a new path, unplanned and unexpected, leading to wonderful things.