I’m 39. School was a long time ago. But I remember quite clearly that I didn’t know what to do or why I was there. I’m lucky. Academic achievement, up to GCSE level anyway, came easy. But despite this, and everyone telling me all of the wonderful things I should do with my life (go to Oxford, become a barrister etc), all I wanted to do was be left alone to pine for the unrequited love of a number of girls at my school whilst listening to industrial metal (there’s a connection there, I now realise, but anyway…).
Going to university was expected, not because I wanted to go, and not because there was any history of going to university within my family (my sister beat me to the title of first university student of the family by the four years of our age difference). But it meant nothing to me – absolutely zero. Sounds odd, but I didn’t understand what it was for and why I was being told I had to go. I just followed what I was told because it seemed easier to get people off my back that way.
I did eventually pass my degree (Latin and Ancient History, since you ask) but to this day I have no idea how and the grade reflects my rather keener interest in learning about life rather than my chosen subject, but therein lies the rub: I retain little of the academic knowledge I gleaned through the occasional visit to the lecture theatre, but I grew as a person hugely throughout that time.
I was reminded of this via a chance conversation overheard the other day outside my local shop. It went (and I promise every word is accurate):
Girl #1: “You only got an E in Maths?”
Girl #2: “Yeah. I don’t care.”
Girl #1: “Do you not want to go to university then?”
Girl #2: “Nah.”
Girl #1: “Why not?”
Girl #2: “Because I’m hard.”
Let’s just be clear then. Rather than an incurable romantic bumbling through life with no clue, despite good and sensible advice from many, as I had been, here was a girl (GCSE age, not A-levels) who had decided – for whatever reason – that not going to university was a good life choice for her because she is “hard”.
This provoked some thoughts. Firstly, hurray for the first girl who at least has an idea that going to university might be quite a good thing. That’s a definite positive. But how can it be that a 16-year old girl in a very nice but very rural village – with all of the problems associated with such a thing (don’t believe everything the BBC tells you about the “rural idyll”) – can have been allowed to coast to an E in Maths without getting that this does not prove you are “hard”, it proves you are at best ill-informed and at worst an idiot.
Now, a 39-year old male stranger remonstrating with a 16-year old girl in the street would probably have drawn a little attention, so I didn’t get involved (and she said she was “hard” so might have beaten me up), but I wanted to shout at her:
“An E in Maths? Do you realise how many doors you have just closed on your life? Let’s see how hard you need to be to survive years of low income, mind-numbing jobs or benefit forms, living at home with your parents long after you’ve become desperate to leave, spending what little you have on drinks in one of the two very nice pubs (they are, actually – especially the Blue Boar) in the village, dreaming of what might have been whilst your friends have interesting, stimulating jobs and earn enough money to rent a nice place, move to a city and buy a car?”
The tragedy is that whatever has happened to make this girl under-achieve at GCSE level, she has been failed by the system. It could of course be entirely her fault, but more likely it is the fault of her parents, poor schooling, peers or just plain old bad luck. Her response is probably the only thing it can be: bravado, of the “I never wanted to come to your party, anyway” sort.
My kids are young. I wonder sometimes what I am going to say to them when they reach this point in their lives. My daughter wants to be an artist, and frankly if she has talent and is prepared to work hard at it, I’ll support her all the way, whatever the likely challenges ahead. But whatever they choose to do, be it art, football, becoming a mermaid (the lustre of that one seems to have dimmed now, thankfully) or training to be an accountant, I hope I can get them to understand that, however crap a system is that insists on everyone ticking some boxes through sitting some exams, it’s a system that we all have to work. Anyone can throw their life away at any time, no matter how old they are. But the tragedy of today’s lost generation, the 900,000 or so NEETs that are such a risk to our society and economy, is that – through poor or often non-existent advice and long-standing socio-economic problems – they slam shut thousands of open doors before they’ve even begun to understand adulthood.
Learn. Tick the boxes. And then make your mistakes. As long as you’ve done the first two things, you can still find a path back to success.