Dirty rich dropouts

examines the lives of ten school leavers who proved everybody wrong

Yesterday’s GCSE results saw a downturn in grades. Do not despair, saddened sixteen-year-olds. These big names serve to remind us all that you do not necessarily need a strong set of A-Levels to be successful in later life.

photo credit: kenjonbro

photo credit: kenjonbro

Lord Alan Sugar

Lord Sugar is well known for having left school at 16. At the start of each season of the Apprentice he makes it quite clear that he became incredibly successful despite dropping out.To be honest, who can blame him? Born and brought up in a council house in Hackney, Sugar hardly got to the top the easy way. After he left Brooke House Secondary School, he started his life as an entrepreneur selling car aerials and electrical goods out of a van that he’d bought with money acquired through various jobs. When he was 21, he founded Amstrad, the company which made his name. Amstrad specialised in consumer electronics and massively undercut all competitors. Throughout the 1980s in particular, Amstrad grew. In 2008, Sugar announced that he would stand down as chairman to focus on his other business interests, some of which are the recent winners of the Apprentice, who have received cash investment from Sugar in order to build up their own businesses. Sugar has also built up his corporate empire through a number of other ventures too.


Despite being one of the most successful rap artists of all time and being famed for his satirical and complex lyrics, Eminem has had a rocky climb to the pinnacle of music. The result of a teen pregnancy, Eminem spent most of his early life living in a lower-middle class part of Detroit. His mother brought him up as a single mum and was described by many as paranoid. Eminem was initially interested in comic books before he became passionate about rap music. The star was undeniably underwhelming at school. He repeated ninth grade three times (that’s for 14 to 15 year olds) before dropping out altogether at the age of 17 to pursue his music career. In his early 20s he was signed by FBT Productions and recorded his debut album, Infinite. He soon rose to the top of global stardom.

Photo credit: Simon Greig (xrrr)

Photo credit: Simon Greig (xrrr)

Simon Cowell

Simon Cowell is renowned for his incredibly blunt manner in almost everything he says and does. Added to this, he is also recognised as being incredibly successful; he has managed to get a number of chart hits out of those he has mentored on the X Factor and through other means. But he didn’t exactly have a stellar school career. He first attended Radlett Preparatory School before going to Dover College. He left Dover College after obtaining only two O-levels, in English Literature and Language. He got another O-level, in Sociology, at Windsor Technical College, before leaving when he was 17. From there he took a few menial jobs, where he did not get on with his peers, before his father managed to get him a job in the mailroom. From there, against all odds, Cowell managed to work his way up the music ladder.

Pierce Brosnan

Although James Bond was a high achiever at school and was educated at Eton, Pierce Brosnan was not. The first ten years of his life were spent in his native Ireland, and he attended a little school in Ireland where the average size of a class was around 7 pupils. He then moved to London and went to a comprehensive school in Putney, before leaving when he was 16 to become a painter. He soon took a dramatic career change and was hired by a circus, after some experimental dabbling in fire eating. Three years later, he moved into acting, and his career in show-biz went from there.

Photo credit: Shinsuke-JJ-lkegame

Photo credit: Shinsuke-JJ-lkegame

Sir Richard Branson

Although Sir Richard Branson is an incredibly successful investor today, his school career was anything but. Despite being privately educated at Staitcliffe School and later Stowe, he had a poor academic record and left school at 16. He later found out that he was dyslexic. However, he has an incredible ability to connect with others. This social intelligence has seen him become the 4th richest UK citizen. Today he is renowned for being the founder of Virgin Group, which consists of more than 400 worldwide companies. To those of you who want to go into business but feel like your GCSEs have hindered you, look at Branson. This man never let anything like that hold him back, despite his early setbacks.

Sir Jimmy Goldsmith

He may have died many years ago, but Sir Jimmy Goldsmith is still remembered today as one of the most successful billionaire financiers of his time. However, Goldsmith did not exactly have the shiniest of school records. He first attended Millfield, and then Eton. However, he dropped out of the elite boarding school at the age of 16, after he bet £10 on a three-horse accumulator at Lewes, winning himself £8000. He then left Eton immediately, announcing to his boarding house that “a man of my means should not remain a schoolboy.” Although Goldsmith did not finish school with a glittering academic portfolio, even at this stage he showed the character and promise that helped him rise as high as he did, despite having a few knocks along the way – including nearly going bankrupt on several occasions.

Chris Evans

Now a famous British presenter, Chris Evans didn’t always have it his way. He may have passed his 11 plus exams to get into Boteler Grammar School in Warrington before moving on to Padgate High School, but Evans dropped out at the age of 16. Whilst at school he ran an alternative tuck shop. However, it was not long before his professional career took off, after he landed his first job at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester in 1983, where he had previously done unpaid work as a school boy.

Photo credit: Commonwealth-Secretariat

Photo credit: Commonwealth-Secretariat

Sir John Major

Seen by some as a failure of a Prime Minister, whilst seen by others as a man who was unlucky to inherit a Conservative government that was already tearing itself apart, one cannot help but admire John Major for really making it in politics, despite dropping out of school with only three O-Levels. He got involved in politics at a very young age through the Young Conservatives, before getting elected as an MP at the ripe old age of 25 in 1968 for Lambeth London Borough Council. Although he lost his seat at the next election, he managed to make his way back into Parliament in the 1979 general election. Major worked his way through the cabinet before rising to Number 10 in 1990 following the demise of Margaret Thatcher.

Alan Johnson

Another politician who has proved that you don’t need a good education to make it into the Cabinet. Despite passing his 11 plus exams and attending Sloane Grammar School in Chelsea, Johnson left school at the age of 15. He stacked shelves in Tescos till he was 18, when he got a job as a postman. He joined the Labour Party in 1971, before being elected as an MP in 1997.

Photo credit: Rakka

Photo credit: Rakka

Sir Michael Caine

Although Sir Michael Caine left school at 16, he was actually a relatively high achiever whilst there. After passing his eleven plus exams, he gained a scholarship to Hackney Downs Grocers’ School. Whilst there Caine performed reasonably well, before moving to Wilson’s Grammar School. He got himself six School Certificates whilst there (the equivalent to today’s GCSEs) but left at the age of 16. His career in acting did not begin until he was 20, as he was delayed by a stint in national service. However, despite a tough first nine years in film, he has since managed to become one of Britain’s most successful actors.

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