Health: Let's put some first things last

britain on the couch
HOW IMPORTANT are exam results? The most prized trophy in our education system is a first-class degree at university but, "first in school, last in life?", that is the question.

There have been only three scientific studies addressing this specific issue, and they suggest that firsts do do better in the short term, but two of them are flawed. The Kosher study merely proves that, a year after graduation, firsts are better paid and more likely to have a job than 2.1s, and so on down. But scientifically solid evidence on whether degree class predicts success throughout life is non-existent.

Anecdotes can be wheeled out to support any view. Of our present leaders, Tony Blair did not get a first, Gordon Brown and Mo Mowlam (and Cherie Blair) did. So what?

My own prejudice is that most first-getters are people who had an unhealthy impulse to please adults. At a young age they started seeing the world through their parents' eyes, transferred this to teachers and examiners and learnt how to give them what they wanted. To test this theory, a few years ago I conducted a study.

I researched the degree classes of the chairmen from the top 50 of The Times 1,000 top industrial companies in the years 1992, 1988 and 1978 to see whether there was any correlation between career success and degree class.

Of the 60 chairmen who had taken a graded degree at a British university, 14 (24 per cent) had got firsts. Since only 8 per cent of graduates got firsts in 1955 (the average year when the chairmen graduated) this was fully three times more than was normal for a sample of 60 men of that generation. Did I not like that?

However, bless them, all but one of the chairmen that I spoke to (and a sporting 17 of them returned my call) felt that it was a lot of rot that firsts do better than the rest. Even the ones with firsts thought so, like Maurice Saatchi. He said: "A first proves only one thing: motivation. I worked until 1am or 2am every night, and every weekend in my final year. It gives you a head start, but that only lasts a couple of years."

When you look more closely at the results of my survey, nine out of the 14 took vocational degrees (engineering, business studies, computer science and so on). This may suggest that a first predicts career success only if it gives you a head start in that profession.

Equally significant, the proportion of firsts with vocational degrees who go into research is much lower than the overall average. Only 15 per cent of the various kinds of vocational firsts do further study, compared with the 39 per cent overall average.

Given that 39 per cent of all graduates who get a first go into academic research rather than join commerce, it is very possible that many of them do not have particularly distinguished careers.

In the Seventies, Professor Liam Hudson published a number of studies showing that post-doctoral researchers with firsts were less successful than those with 2.1s and 2.2s. Given what it takes to get a first, this should not be surprising. To get one, you need to please your teachers, enjoy being supervised, and, ultimately, please the examiners. You must ignore what you think and concentrate on what they want. To do research and succeed as an academic, you need the opposite: think originally, be highly self-motivated rather than craving constant praise.

Trainee accountants with firsts or 2.1s (65 per cent) are more likely than 2.2s or thirds (41 per cent) to pass their accountancy exams. But that does not prove that the ones with high degrees are more likely to get the top of those professions. A recent survey of 254 leading companies showed that 71 per cent thought exam results a poor guide to an individual's abilities at work.

Interestingly, people with exceptionally high IQs are no more likely to succeed in their careers than those in the above average, but not exceptional, category (with an IQ of around 120). A follow-up study of 400 Americans who had IQs of 150 or more (the average is 100) in childhood did not find that they had unusually successful careers for people of their class and educational background.

I suspect that it is a myth that first-getters are of superior originality. They work hard, they are ambitious, but that does not prepare them for success in their subsequent careers. In many cases, they peak too early, and their first is their last outstanding achievement. If so, we need to question the purpose of a system whose crowning glory is a first-getter.

But you may not agree and, to save you writing in, the answer to the question is yes, I did get a 2.2

The paperback edition of Oliver James's book, `Britain on the Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared with 1950 Despite Being Richer', is published by Arrow, price pounds 7.99