The harshness of modern youth

As amusing as much of the commentary on A Level results day was, a plethora of comedians and bloggers getting plenty of laughs out of the fact that the papers and TV cameras have a unhealthy focus on the ecstatic and leaping pretty blonde girls who’re off to climb the social mobility ladder at Oxbridge, it did mask what was actually a thoroughly bad day for many of the most vulnerable people our society has.

I count myself quite lucky to have been essentially the last year that really allowed those who were intelligent despite their laziness to get on to a course at a good university. A year later, I wouldn’t have made my second choice, let alone my first choice. It baffles me then, that the national perception every year is still that young people have it far too easy, that the exams they are given are still nothing like a challenge and that they do nothing but mooch off of society and cause trouble. The reality of modern youth is nothing like some sections of the middle aged middle class would like to think it is.

The lesson of last year’s admissions scramble and carnage was not lost on anyone who actually wanted to go to university, and 150,000 who sought entry to higher education may be turned away at the gates after failing to meet their grades. Many of these, who are barely out of adolescence, will be severely disappointed despite having worked extremely hard and having spent all their weekends for the last two years working in grimy conditions for wages barely above the minimum. Many will have far exceeded the two ‘E’ grades that you’d normally associate with those who failed to get into university; like Icarus, they will be those who were punished for flying too close to the sun, having their wings burned for achieving a mere AAB as opposed to the AAA that the Oxbridge imitators demanded.

And undoubtedly many will slink off into a gap year and give it a go in a year’s time. Universities Minister David Willets has openly said that those who failed should be a little bit less ambitious and rack up some time in the voluntary sector. A wonderful idea for those who have the financial backing from their parents to do so, but the point of adopting our national emphasis on university degrees in the 1990s was that it would be simultaneous with the less well off actually being able to attend and therefore compete on a level playing field. If voluntary sector experience is the new barrier for those taking a second run at the admissions process, how do those were struggling to pay in the first place actually afford to do this? Where do they get the money to pay rent, buy necessities and pay bills if they are working for free?

Many have, predictably, railed upon the fact that A Level pass rates and A grades have yet again soared, but this is hardly a surprise either. It is indicative of a number of things: the first is that if you teach a curriculum to essentially similar kids year after year, you get better at doing so, learning the system with mechanical precision. The second is that the stakes are higher than ever. As a society, we now expect degrees for most non-vocational and many vocational jobs, and those who are academic at the end of their GCSEs are encouraged to take A Levels and try to go to university. There are too few places available for everyone to go to a university performing well in the league tables, and this is well known. Data is readily available that dramatically points out the links between quality institutions and future income. With times so tight, this is advice to be ignored at your own peril. For many, failure is a disaster.

The rhetoric of many of the middle aged and middle class is repulsive. To pull the ladder up on your own children after you’ve climbed it is an impressive feat of heartlessness, but to then claim it is their fault is another level of cruelty altogether. A lost generation of those who tried and failed to break out of their social standing in a system not of their choosing awaits.


  1. It’s alright – all of those who missed out on places are gonna go and get that Big Society going.


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  2. Here, here.

    Every year I hear some pompous, middle-aged twit denouncing the A-level results, declaring students to be uniformly illiterate, innumerate and generally lazy thickos, before claiming that the rigour of A-levels is not a patch on the education of yesteryear (i.e. the education they received).

    Don’t they understand how much of a kick in the teeth this is to those young people who have worked incredibily hard (I worked dawn till dusk on Maths and Physics) to acheive good results, only to be told that they’re pretty meaningless and any old duffer could have pick them up?

    Honestly, this annual dance of despair makes me sick. It’s basically one generation giving the finger to its successor.

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  3. AAB, you are spot on. However, I feel this notion does not only apply to pomposity but to the working class man with a few “O-Levels” ready to deride the hard working youth due to their own ill success.

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  4. The way I see it is this: intelligence should be the only pre-requisite for attending university, A-level results are the measure we use. By telling people Ds and Es are still good enough we are fooling ourselves and them. If you dont get at least one C, you shouldnt expect to go. Instead we have built an industry of crapy new universities that many drop out of get nothing from and fail to get jobs from later. Pointless.

    It may sound elitist but we cant keep pretending that it is fair for hard working tax-payers (many earning £13,000 but never going to university themselves) to fund people failing to get a C. I am a lefty but Labour got this so wrong. They should have directed all the resources to helping people who got great results but were very poor.

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  5. Jon, I completely agree.

    For those who can’t/don’t want to go to university, there should be a nationwide apprenticeship scheme, so everyone has the opportunity to obtain some kind of useful and respected qualification, whether academic or practical (plumbing, carpentry, electrical work, metal work, etc.).

    Many of the crappy new universities used to be polytechnics. I don’t see why they can’t be re-orientated to teaching practical trades, with each partnered with various firms in industry, instead of being pale imitations of more academic institutions and ultimately serving no purpose.

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  6. 25 Aug ’10 at 3:05 pm

    Bring back the polys...

    Whether or not exams these days are easier than those of previous generations, no student wants to hear that their achievement is, in fact, not an achievement. I am determined not to be one of those people when I am older and watching subsequent generations get their results, but I fear it is one of those things which just happens with age!

    On the other point, I completely agree with Henry James and Jon.

    Every year the media goes crazy with announcements about record (again!) numbers applying, record (again!) numbers who haven’t been given places…is anyone surprised anymore? People act as if it is a shock and a completely new phenomenon which is ridiculous.

    Apprenticeships are essential for the furture of trade jobs. With Labour’s recent, and misjudged, attempts to make university accessible to all they have forced students who cannot academically reach the required standards to get good degrees from good universitites to apply for HE places…at, and I don’t pretend to be ashamed to say it, ‘Mickey Mouse’ universitites. These are students who, often, would have done so much better trainng to be electricians, carpenters etc.). Fair enough, if they do not have the interst to do it then by all means do something else. But for those who believe Labour’s constant rhetoric that University is the only way to a good job and suchlike, yet who cannot academibcally handle it, it sets them up for failure and disappointment.

    Polytechnics were respected when they provided for such students or were well known for specific degrees. Think about YSJ now. Wit was a specific teacher training college, it was highly respected. No doubt the teaching courses they now run are still excellent, but what about the other degrees it offers? We, as York University students, are all aware of the running joke about the standard of the students at YSJ and this is not an uncommon view for students of ‘real’ unis to hold about the ‘mets’ or ‘city’ unis and similar ones.

    While apprenticeships obviouslt do still exist, there needs to be more of an emphasis on tehir importance, thier value and their worth to those who would far much better from them. I would never have considered such courses because I am useless at practical things and science (many are ‘sciencey,’ as opposed to my English degree), plus I have no interest in the subjects beyond the fact their useage which helps my everday life. Education ministers, politicians etc. need to stop trying to make every student do a degree, bring polytechnics up to their old standard (far easier said than done, I know) and generally save massive, unsurprising, disappointment every August.

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  7. It appears to be an annual news story now that A-level and GCSES are becoming easier and frankly it strikes me as lazy journalism. Our generation appears to be belittled no matter what we do if one were to believe what the papers say then we would all be stereotyped as binge drinking, uneducated, obese, violent, lazy, jobless and so on. The sad fact is that the media need a story every day and the dumbing down of education is easy pickings although the media rarely acknowledge the fact that students can only sit the exams that are in front of them.

    My issue with the education system currently is that University is pitched as the only option and getting a basic entry level job appears to require a degree these days. I would agree that sending people to University with poor grades is delusional; a friend of mine scraped two C’s and a U at A-level but somehow managed to get on a teaching course. These examples dilute the quality of a degree especially as those with three A’s at A-level are being turned down routinely at top Universities.

    However my fear is that Universities will become elitist once more as the education system overwhelmingly favours those from wealthier backgrounds. Lets be honest we’re deluding ourselves if we believe many students who attend York, Bristol, LSE, Oxbridge, Warwick and so forth come from working class backgrounds. Most students (myself included) come from middle class backgrounds and attended either a grammar school or a excellent state school in the area whilst statistics show polytechnics take on more students from a poorer background. Whether we like it or not there is a huge disparity between middle class students and working class students from primary school to University. I’m unsure of how you solve this but it’s clear that the current system needs to change as having a open door policy on Universities doesn’t appear to be benefiting anyone at all.

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  8. @ Robert Green

    One way to improve things in the middle/lower class problem would perhaps be to extend the grammar school project and stream students from a certain age according to ability. And I don’t mean those ‘with’ ability and those ‘without’, but according to different abilities. As my old maths teacher said, we’re all different and so we’re all good at different things.

    Partner the above with a national apprenticeship programme, so fewer people would go to ‘universities’ and we could return to a grant system, which would mean academically orientated people from poorer backgrounds would be less put-off from applying to top universities for fear of student debt.

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  9. The ignorance in the UK about the UK polytechnics system is incredible and former poly grads don’t seem to speak up about it. Polytechnics did not administer apprenticeships (this as the technical colleges) but in fact offered bachelors, masters and PhD degrees through the council for national academic awards (CNAA) – the national body. It was in fact a more rigorous system of degree standards because standards were under a strict quality process by independent academics form the universities. In addition the London Polytechnic who shamefully changed the name to Westminster university is one of the oldest higher education institutions in the country 1838 and has a history of innovation but changed its name because of this stupid pathetic snobbery that the English excel at. Britain is going down because it does not value its chartered engineers (12 years to qualify including a masters degree in the most demanding academic subjects). It is rapid decline from here on because of gross mismanagement from Oxbridge incompetent inbreeds.

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  10. Hello young man. You want to go off to uni and spend 3 years getting boozed up, indulging in casual sex, getting up at 3, and generally having a good time?

    Yes, I think so.

    Oh no, that’s not for you. I think you should head down to Croydon College and do a year’s apprenticeship in carpentry.

    Oh, right, you do, do you?

    Yes, I do.

    Nah, I’m off to the University of West England to study leisure and tourism, laterssss. BEER ME

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