Thank God I flunked

Toby Butler didn't get where he is today by doing well on his A-level exams first - or even second - time around
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The Independent Online
Exams are a joke. Don't let anyone tell you different. The trouble is that the ones who have been lucky on the pedagogic fruit machine think they deserved it. Like any idiot gambler, they believe their intelligence or talent had something to do with the jackpot. It didn't. But it's the winners who become teachers, academics and examination writers. The few with a peculiar faith in a ridiculous system. That is the catch-22. If you lose, you never get to be in a position to change the system. If you win, you never want to change the system - after all, it got you there, and you deserved it, right?

Before my A-level exams, the future looked rosy. My predicted grades were BBC, and I had offers to study drama at Bristol and Warwick. I got CDE, and the world shook. I called the universities feeling as if I were offering veal to vegans. I was disappointed, but hey, I had thought about taking a year out anyway.

I decided to retake; this was more for my self esteem than for UCCA. For six months I worked nights for an oil company to become a tiny cog in a big machine. I made up for the tedium by travelling; a Grand Tour around Europe and a humble track across South America.

Meanwhile, I applied for a rich variety of courses. I was never very sure what subjects I enjoyed most, having tried almost nothing and being interested in pretty much everything. The retakes got my CDE up to a CCD. This time I had made more realistic applications, so I received more realistic offers. Mainly because of its gargantuan reputation in the drama world, I chose to take a teaching degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

After an eventful year teaching at inner- city schools, acting and trying to get used to the alienation of a huge city, I decided it wasn't for me. I was doing a vocational course absolutely unsure of what I wanted to study, let alone what career I wanted.

I found out I could transfer to a completely different course and still get three more years of grant, provided both institutions agreed the transfer was "on academic grounds". The problem was finding somewhere to go; by this time I had to compete in the clearing game - the shameless marketplace, as irrational as the stock market, and harder to play.

Determined not to make the same mistake of specialising too early, I was looking for a modular course or at least joint honours. As I was still unsure of what I wanted to study, I was also concerned about how easy it would be to change subjects once I had got to university. Clearing offers subjects that are not in demand; the university simply has to fill its quotas to collect its fees. Once there, students can often change subjects with ease.

With this in mind, curiosity to find out more about Latin America and a secret desire to read English (almost impossible in clearing), I shamelessly called every university with a flexible Arts faculty. Eventually, encouraging sounds came from Middlesex (Philosophy and Spanish), Greenwich (politics), and Aberystwyth (Spanish). Given the choice between the sea and mountains of mid-Wales and the smoky London maze, Aberystwyth won hands down.

I began a long period of tele-selling myself to the admissions officer, the head of the Spanish department and his secretary - mostly his secretary. I pestered her daily. She was so kind and soothing. It was she who eventually told me that I had won a place. I still believe that the goddess on the end of the phone who calmed my daily hysteria had something to do with it.

All Arts students at the University of Wales had to do three subjects in the first year. I learnt three things: my complete inability to remember anything was a serious setback to speaking Spanish; a degree in English literature requires a diploma in speed reading; and finally, that history embraced everything, and it was everything I was interested in. Transferring departments was effortless. At last I had discovered a degree that suited me.

If you don't have the grades you want, or if you cannot find a course you want, or even if you find yourself on a course that you don't enjoy, don't despair. The world hasn't ended; it has just begun. This is an opportunity for you to discover what you really enjoy; or in my case, what you really don't enjoy (which is equally important). I have just graduated with a first-class degree in history. Exams are an excellent measure of intelligence. Don't let anyone tell you different.

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