Mastering the art of the impossible: If your A-level results mean the future you had planned is not to be, fear not. High achievers don't necessarily have the grades to match their brilliant careers, as Sarah Strickland discovers

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Janet Welsh: BT campaign manager, 29

I messed up on my A-levels and thought it was the end of the world.

I wanted to do a degree in business studies at what was then Liverpool Polytechnic but I just didn't get the grades. I wasn't supremely confident about my results but I thought I would get three passes with poor grades. In the end I only got one, a grade D.

I had a holiday job at the time at Marks & Spencer and I rang the school for my results. I spoke to the school secretary who was ever so sweet to me, said how sorry she was. I didn't cry but went into a complete panic, ringing around other places to try and get in with my one pass.

Central London Poly came up trumps. They offered me a two-year higher national diploma course in business studies. I hadn't thought about coming to London n I was looking at places closer to my home in north Wales. I came down to see them and accepted it.

I ended up working for BT, handling an annual budget of around pounds 15m, and have no regrets at all now. I don't feel as though I have lost out in any way.

It certainly hasn't held me back, it's all worked out really well. All my closest friends went off to university and until the last year or so I have been earning more than all of them] One has just finished his accountancy exams and overtaken me.

It's not the end of the world if you don't get exactly what you want. People respond to enthusiasm more than bits of paper.

Billy Bragg: singer and songwriter

Nobody in my class, nobody in my school got any real encouragement to go to university. It was not that difficult to get jobs in those days and that's what we all intended to do n to get to grips with making money and spending it. The teachers all expected us to get jobs in the local Ford plant. I learnt to play the guitar to save me from Ford.

I took loads of O-levels and only got one, in English language, for which I got a grade A. I do regret nobody suggesting university as an option, although I probably wouldn't have got in. I think I'd decided school didn't really matter, life mattered. School wasn't inspiring me and I'd given up on it.

I suppose if you see all your friends going off to university it's rather like not going on the school trip. You realise you have to make your own great time.

Really it's about those first seminal experiences away from home, it's a social thing n how you make that break from your parents. Those who go to university have a ready-made excuse. Mine was joining a band four years after I left school and going to share a house together.

I would love to go to university now if I had the time. I'd be very pleased if my son said he'd like to go to university, but I would hate him to think he had failed if he didn't. It's not the end of the world if you don't get in n you can find some other way of judging yourself.

Beryl Bainbridge: writer, 59

In those days if you failed one of the mock exams you couldn't enter the real ones, which is what happened to me. But I got expelled from school anyway: I copied down a so-called dirty rhyme that was going around and illustrated it. My mother found it and took it to school. These days I would probably have been given some sort of prize for imaginative artwork.

It was unheard of to be expelled. It was a posh school and all the other pupils were going on to the sixth form. My parents were upset, but didn't mind my not going to university because my brother went and boys were the ones that were supposed to achieve then. My mother wanted me to be an actress, so I went to an arts educational school for a year then I joined the Liverpool repertory company for three years.

I did regret it later because I would have liked to be a doctor and there were all sorts of areas of knowledge that I knew nothing about. But I've met other writers who bitterly regret having been to university, particularly if they did English. It's not a good thing to do a degree in English if you want to be a writer. It really renders you unable to write properly because you have too many ideas in your head about how it should be done. You should have the sense to know that you read in your own time, you don't need to study literature.

Chris Dunkley: broadcaster and TV critic, 50

My school was quite an academic hothouse and I was doing S-and A-levels. Both my brother and sister had been to Cambridge and it was kind of assumed that I was going to go up to St John's.

I was thrown out of school a matter of weeks before I sat my exams n for smoking and being a eesubversive influence'. It was ridiculous. I was allowed to do the exams but missed all the revision classes. St John's then told me to come back another year. I put the idea of university out of my mind.

I was soon on the Slough Observer chasing fire engines and was doing a shift on a national newspaper by time I was 18. Then I got offered a contract with the BBC. By the time my peers were coming out of university I was three years ahead of them and they were all trying to do what I had already succeeded in doing. But they did catch up in the end.

For the first 10 years it didn't enter my head to regret university. By the time I was 25 I had two children and was worried about cars and mortgages. I would love to go to university now, it would be fantastic. Occasionally I feel I have had to work very hard to keep my end up in life, to keep up to the mark among people who were not just graduates but experts in their field. I have felt at something of an academic disadvantage at times.

I had the devil's own job trying to get my own children to see the point in going to university. I felt I had to insist on them going. They said: eeYou didn't, so why should we?' But I couldn't allow them to use me as an excuse not to go. Things have changed. You really do have to be qualified now.

John Tomlinson: opera singer, 47

I always had two sides to my personality, the scientific side and the musical side. I had always sung as a child, but there was never any thought that you would do it as a career.

I got Cs and Ds at A-level and went to Manchester University to read civil engineering, which was what I wanted to do then. I was very happy to go there, although it wasn't my first choice n I had hoped to follow in my brother's footsteps and go to Cambridge. I completed my course and got my degree, but I'd been growing more and more fascinated with the singing side.

About half-way through my course I'd put up a notice at the Royal College of Music asking for lessons. When I qualified I had to make a big decision whether to go straight to music college or to go and help build the second Mersey tunnel in Liverpool. Luckily, most people were really supportive and encouraging and said: if there is something you really want to do, then do it.

Some people at the Royal College tried to put me off by saying how fraught with risks the singing world was and that I'd have far more security as a civil engineer, but strangely the opposite has proved true.

I don't regret doing my course for a minute and I'm very glad I didn't give up half-way through. I needed that three years to make the decision to be a singer. I loved the maths, and university was generally very enjoyable. It gives you great self-confidence and assurance to have a degree in something. University is an enriching experience and it teaches you to think logically and in a disciplined way.

Whatever direction you end up going in, you should follow that course and dedicate yourself to it for the time that you are doing it. If you're not able to do the subject of your choice, throw yourself into the next best thing.

The danger is not applying yourself to anything in particular because you are always thinking you should be doing something else. Quite a lot of young people seem to be a bit aimless, and that's a shame.

(Photographs omitted)

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