The A-level prisoner and other stories

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Indy Lifestyle Online
On Thursday, thousands of A-level students will learn their results. When the exam was set up 44 years ago, just 3.1 per cent of 18 year olds sat it, achieving a pass rate of 70 per cent; today, people of all ages and backgrounds, including a third of all 18 year olds, submit to a grilling in more than 32 subjects from psychology to Sanskrit. But now the A-level itself is under examination. Lauded by ministers as the gold standard, it is savagely denounced by many educationalists as too academic and elitist. The debate rumbles on, but next week it will be drowned by squeals of joy and groans of despair. Interviews by Lesley Gerard. Portraits by Philip Sinden

Victoria Hewitt

20, of Morecambe, Lancashire, studied A-levels in Dance and Maths at the Royal Ballet School in London

Education is an insurance policy. Dancing is a precarious career, so if you get the opportunity to improve yourself you should take it. People think dancers cannot be academic: that's a myth. We have to be disciplined on a whole load of levels. For the past ten months I haven't been able to dance, due to a freak injury. A huge lump of bone started growing on my hip and had to be removed. It was a stressful time sitting on the sidelines watching the others dance and progress, but having had that time to think I realise ballet is what I really want to do more than anything. I want to dance with the Royal Ballet Company one day, but I'm realistic too: your career could end abruptly, you could be knocked down crossing the road - who knows what the future holds. I've had a first-rate education. Coming to this school as a boarder I have had the advantage of being taught academic subjects in small groups. I've got eight O-levels, six As and two Bs, and have done better here than I could have done at a state school, and I've learned to dance!

Todd Byrne

32, from Manchester, studied A-level Art and Design at Risley Prison in Warrington, Cheshire, while serving a five-year sentence for wounding with intent

I've been in and out of prison since I was 16. This time it was for wounding someone in a pub fight. This is the first time I have given education a try, I'd never done any book learning or schooling. I joined the art course at Risley for something to do, then eight months ago the teacher said I was good enough to take an A-level. I got really nervous in the months beforehand but in the exams, which I took in prison, it went OK. The other inmates have been quite supportive. When I'm not in class I do sketches for them. No one pulls my leg about being "arty" - I'm a big bloke, not skinny: that puts those ideas out of their heads. Doing art has made me look at things in a different way. I have never been to an art gallery in my life; now, that's something I really want to do. I've got 12 months in prison to go. Risley are trying to get me on a Fine Art foundation course at the local college and when I get out I want to go to university and do a degree. For the first time I am planning for the future; before I could see nothing.

Auriol Britton

20, of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, studied French, Latin and Religious Studies A-levels at the Royal Institute for the Blind's New College, Worcester

I had lost my sight completely by the age of seven. I've been at New College since I was 12. They teach you life skills and to be independent. You learn to become mobile and have the courage to go out on your own. A-levels were difficult at times, not because of the work, but because I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well and succeed. I've got nine O-levels, all As and Bs. I need two Cs and a B at A-level to get to Bristol University. I think I will get the grades. Visually impaired people have slightly longer to sit the exams. We use computer voice synthesisers and brailers linked to printers. The extra half an hour is great, but makes it very exhausting. I'm planning to do a degree in Theology and Religious Studies because it's an interesting subject - not because I want to be a lady vicar - then I might do a law conversion course. I'm not sure yet what I want to do.

Steven Jenkins

18, studied at Rugby School, took A-level Maths, Spanish and German a year early and is awaiting the results of his Further Maths, Chemistry, Biology and Physics A-levels.

I've got 11 GCSEs, two O/A levels and three A-levels - all straight As. I like studying, it interests me. I like the end result, I don't have to force myself to do it. My mum is a language teacher. I grew up in Spain, but she always spoke to me in German and my dad, who is retired from a pharmaceutical company, always spoke English. Learning languages came naturally. I've been at Rugby for five years. The discipline and different culture was a shock after school in Spain and I was very homesick at first, but the facilities and opportunities are excellent. I'm a member of the philosophy and debating societies and I play the saxophone. I've got a place at Cambridge University, where they've asked for an A in physics, an A in maths and two Bs in my science A-levels - just to keep me on my toes. I plan to take an engineering degree but before that I'll work for a year. Beyond university, I don't know what the future holds.

Tom Chitty

55, lives in the Vale of Evesham. Studying Literature and Theatre Studies at Stratford-upon-Avon College

I retired from my job as a senior bank manager for Lloyds a year ago. I wanted to do something different with the rest of my life. While studying I have been working as a self-employed financial consultant, but if I get the A-level grades, I will give it up to go to Warwick University to take a degree in Literature and Cultural Studies. I took A-levels 30 years ago, but wanted to prove I could still study at 55. Anyone who thinks standards in schools have dropped should try taking A-levels. I was the oldest person in the Theatre Studies classes, it wasn't intimidating, everyone accepted me. As part of the exams I acted a scene from Pygmalion with one young girl; I was Henry Higgins, she was Eliza, which worked out well. I don't want to be an actor but I do want to be an informed member of the audience. Strangely, I have found myself shedding a character which I've played for more than 30 years - the bank manager - it's been quite liberating.

Wendy Price

34, of Wolverhampton, studied A-level Sociology and Religious Education at Wolverhampton College of Adult Education

I've got three children aged 17, 12 and seven. I married young. I thought it was going to be roses round the cottage door but it wasn't. We divorced seven years ago and three years ago I went back to school to do GCSEs; I got five, all As and Bs. I took sociology because I wanted to dispel a few myths about single mothers. Sociologists are all white males who think women like me feed our kids on bread and jam, scarlet women who go out all night while their children run riot. I want to go to university and become a teacher. I could have done an access course, but I chose A-levels - I want to get there because I've made the grade, not because I'm older. My seven-year-old daughter has muscular dystrophy and I don't want to live on benefits all my life. I need a decent job, that drives me on. I've discovered I'm not thick - for years I thought I was. No one will be more nervous than me on results day. If I don't pass I'll have failed my kids as well as myself.

Raginder Mattu

20, of Handsworth, Birmingham, already has A-levels in Performing Arts, English and Sociology. This year, she studied Psychology at Bournville College of Further Education

A-levels are hard, a big leap from O-levels. I took mine in stages. I work in my parents' shop when I am not studying and, at times, it has put pressure on my college work. My family is Punjabi. There is a tradition of arranged marriages and my parents have asked me if I'm interested but I think university and my career should come first. I will cross the bridge of marriage when I come to it. I want status and social prestige, I want to make a mark, they accept that. There is a stereotype of Asian women that we are all passive. Growing up and studying in a multi-cultural city is very good because people can learn about one another. I am realistic that there will be times when my colour and sex may cause me to be discriminated against but I intend to fight those prejudices, not give in to them. I am ambitious. Academic qualifications and education are very important. I want to do a psychology degree and then became a journalist - that's my goal.

Albert Tafilaj

19, is an Albanian refugee from Kosovo, Serbia. He studied Maths and Computing at Hampstead School in London

I left Kosovo because the Serbs were going to force me to fight in their army in Bosnia. I was 16. I am a Muslim and if I had not killed enough Muslims they would have shot me. Some friends got me to Macedonia and I flew England, where I met another teenager whose brother was already in Hampstead. We went to live with him. I spoke no English. One day I was lost and came across a school. I walked in and they said they would help me learn English. School was very different. I was amazed that the pupils argued with the teachers. In my country teachers demand respect. The war is always in the news and I am worried about my family in Serbia. I don't know if my application for asylum has been accepted, but I have a place to study Software Engineering at Kingston University. I want to be a film producer, like my father, but this will be a skill to keep in my pocket. War makes you realise the need for back-up plans. Life is not predictable.

Margaret Broughton

54, a secretary from Kent, studied A-level English Literature at Kent Adult Education Service in Sittingbourne

I got into Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde when my sons (now aged 22 and 21) were studying for their A-levels. I kept reading their textbooks. I decided to take an A-level myself to prove I could do it and that I could keep up with them. My class was a really fun crowd, mostly twentysomethings doing re-takes, but I sat with another lady in her fifties. It was enlightening to hear other people's opinions on books, it changes your perspective completely. We did the course in one year, with classes after work. It was hectic. My husband, who has taken early retirement, always made sure that I came home to a cooked dinner (though I didn't manage to get out of the ironing). When the exams were over all the class went down the pub to celebrate, then my husband took me on holiday to Scotland to wind down. I am nervous about the result. I just want to pass, an E or a D would do - but if I get a C you will hear my scream from Kent to London.

Sharon Attafuah Annafi

18, lives in London, studied A-level Politics and Sociology at City and Islington College

I didn't really like A-levels. I know it's like a game we all have to play but I don't think you can test someone's knowledge and two years work with a few three-hour exams. My mum's shopping bill soared when I was revising - I was eating everything. Revising is the worst bit, you're thinking am I learning the right thing? What's going to come up? When the exams finally came round it was a relief. We were all in this hall and I was one of the people sitting on the stage. After reading the exam paper I looked round the room and saw people who had already written a side. That freaks you out. My college runs a mentor scheme where you are paired up with a black professional person who gives you help, encouragement and advice about A-levels. My parents are supportive, too, but it was nice having an extra person who understood the pressures. Now it's all over I think I will take a year out, do some voluntary work, maybe do a third A-level and think what to do for a career. First, I will go on holiday with my mum to Ghana.

Judith Mower

18, studied Modern Hebrew at the Spiro Institute and Maths and Biology at Hasmonean Girls' School in London

Being Jewish is very important to me. It's the structure of my life, my history and religion. Modern Hebrew is a useful modern language. Next year I will spend a year at the Orot higher education college in Israel. I'm glad I can speak the language, neither of my parents do. Hebrew was no harder to learn than French or German probably are. You have to plough through all the verbs, grammar, learn thousands of words, new vocabulary. It is part memory, part practice. I enjoyed everything about every single subject, including Maths and Biology. Hopefully I will get the grades to go to Kings College, London, to study Physiotherapy. They say there is a shortage of physiotherapists so it will be a good career. I went to the Spiro Institute on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Working in the evenings after school was tough. I don't know how much the Spiro course cost - my parents paid.

Fred Smith, aged 97, and his daughter, Eunice, 68, have been students at Liverpool College of Further Education since 1972, when Fred brought his family back from Brazil, where he had worked as a missionary and preacher.

Now, 23 years and many courses - including O- and A-levels - later, they are writing a book about Fred's days as a schoolboy in turn-of-the-century Liverpool.

It's never too late to go back to college, insists Eunice, but you can become addicted to learning. When she first went back to school - attending the local community college - it was more from a desire to better her career chances than an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

"A year after we returned to Liverpool from Brazil, my mother died. I thought I had better get some qualifications and train for a job. My Brazilian education didn't mean much here," explains Eunice. "Also my father and I wanted to get back into the British culture having been away since 1954 - college seemed a good solution."

Fred attended daily classes alongside his daughter, studying Religious Education, English, Portuguese and Spanish O-levels and Portuguese and Spanish A-levels. Eunice passed with straight As. Fred completed the course work but decided not to take the exams.

After Eunice got a job as a care worker, she went on to take an Open University degree, specialising in social sciences, and qualified as a social worker. When she retired, father and daughter went straight back to college again. Last year, Eunice passed her French GCSE and the year before that Italian. Next year, she will take German. Fred took calligraphy and creative writing courses. In the past two years they have both mastered word processing.

In recent months they have taken a break from the more academic courses because Fred has been ill and has needed hospital treatment. They have concentrated instead on writing Fred's memoirs. He writes on the college computers and Eunice edits the text. "I toddle along two mornings a week to write," says Fred. "I feel tiptop."

The Old Swan Community College, near their home in Moscow Drive, has become an intrinsic part of their social lives. "I feel very privileged to be so old, yet able to enjoy the company of other students. We like student life, sitting in the cafeteria chatting and drinking tea, meeting young people from all walks of life," says Fred.

"Of all the subjects, I enjoyed French best. The language laboratory is so modern. I can't hear very well these days, but there are all these aids which help you get around the problem," he adds.

In her spare time Eunice has learned to play the electric organ and has recently taken up the guitar. "I lead the congregation in church, but it's nice to play both traditional hymns for the older generation and more modern popular gospel to please the young people too."

Education, she insists, is crucial to improving communication skills. "Liverpool is a multi-cultural city which attracts many different students and tourists. When you are at a bus stop and hear someone talking Italian it's nice to turn round and welcome them in their own language. I have made many good friends through being able to speak foreign languages. People who then come to our home and visit us."