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.