Can a perfect run of A* GCSE grades dictate how the rest of your life will pan out?
Achieving such elevated academic standards at a young age might seem like a totemic moment in the lives of 15- and 16-year-olds, but what is its lasting impact? Simon Akam tracks down the clean sweepers...
Friday 16 August 2013
'How did you do?' It's the question around 630,000 students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be asking each other next week as they receive their GCSE results. Their scores will span a broad range. Last year, 81 per cent gained at least five A* to C grades.
There is a smaller group, however, in more rarefied territory who will received perfect marks - you'll likely see them holding their results slip and smiling in the pages of newspapers.
In 2012, 4,571 students gained at least 10 A*s, up from 1,446 a decade ago. 1,930 of last year's highest achievers were male, 2,641 female; 2,320 attended state-funded schools, 2,251 independents.
Achieving such elevated academic standards at a young age might seem like a totemic moment in the lives of those 15- and 16-year-olds, but what is its lasting impact? I wanted to track down men and women with the full house of top GCSE grades and ask them what it meant at the time and what role - if any - it subsequently played in their lives.
Anna Hatt, aged 35, was a student in 1994, the inaugural year of the A*. She works now as a patent attorney for the London firm Beck Greener. As a teen she attended Brighton and Hove High School, an independent girls' day school.
Hatt sat French and German GCSE a year early in 1993, obtaining in both an A grade, which was then the highest available. She took the balance of her exams in 1994, the first year of the A*. "We'd heard they were a real mark of excellence, and people might get one or two," she explained. In fact, she got eight, one in every exam she sat.
Later, Hatt won a place at Merton College at Oxford, where she studied chemistry. Her academic record to graduation was flawless. After she had started working, though, she failed some professional exams at the first attempt. "I didn't like it," she said. "I had plenty of experience of failing ballet exams and driving tests, but that was my first experience of failing something academic."
Two further factors are striking about Hatt's experience. The first was that the importance of her academic track record in her identity diminished over time, in particular as her career developed and she had children (she has two, aged 5 and 3). "Straight A*s don't get dinner on the table before the children start screaming," she said.
The second issue related to university applications. Hatt applied to Oxford to read chemistry, rather than medicine, in which she was more interested, because chemistry is easier to get in for. Last year chemistry had 3.0 applicants per place, medicine 9.7. In retrospect, Hatt felt, this decision to put "Oxford above course" was "possibly a mistake."
Arthur Lovell obtained 12 GCSE A*s in 1997 at Whitstone Community School, a comprehensive in Shepton Mallet in Somerset. Sixteen years on, he works for Cella Energy, a tech firm in Oxfordshire. I asked Lovell how much of his identity is - and has been - based on his academic record.
"It's something I acknowledge internally has been an important part of my self-esteem, particularly when other things weren't going so well," he said, wryly mentioning that when his photo appeared in the newspapers after his GCSE results came out, his appearance was something of a "stereotypical geek".
Socially, things were not completely straightforward for Lovell at school. "I always got ribbed a lot," he said. However, he was prepared to cut his own trail. "I was quite bloody-minded, frankly, as a kid. I knew I didn't fit into the usual categories." Arthur's first experience of failure was when applying to Cambridge as a sixth-former. He gained an offer, only to miss the grade required in an "S-level" exam Cambridge wished him to sit alongside his A-levels. "It was kind of bruising," he said. "It's a good learning experience; I think it's really worth failing at things."
The potential social complications of high GCSE performance were underlined by the experiences of Felix Hill, who sat his GCSEs in 2000. He attended Thornden School, a comprehensive in Chandler's Ford in Hampshire. Thornden was, in Hill's words, "very middle class". Still, he experienced hostility. "In year seven, I used to answer every question in every class, and very quickly I learnt that was the way to make myself a social pariah," he said.
On one occasion, a PE teacher in a gym class shouted, "You think you're so clever; Newton's law, that's not going to help you now mate.'" Hill cut as many as 65 per cent of lessons, preferring to study privately in his own time, and when he was in class he became "quite mouthy".
His GCSE results were a lonely victory: "I was pleased, but I didn't have anyone to celebrate the achievement with, other than my parents. I wanted someone to tell, but who to tell?" he said. "What do you say? Some of them might have got Cs and Bs?"
Barton Peveril Sixth Form College was an improvement, but it was Oxford, where he went to read mathematics, which proved the real social revelation. "I just remember girls, quite attractive girls, don't find you strange," he said.
After Oxford and a post-graduate year teaching Hill took a job as a management consultant. "I guess one of my problems with it was that I felt really bad at it, and I felt really bad at it because I wasn't exceptional at it," he said. Hill quit consultancy after two years and returned to academia.
The long shadow of attainable perfection at 16 can be troublesome. This reality is underlined by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in the US and author of Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. Dweck said high achievers tend to fall into two categories. For the first type, the maintenance of their track record can become overwhelmingly important. In Dweck's words, they "limit their future aspiration to curate their perfectionism".
Her second category refers to those with a "growth mindset". These individuals have high standards, but they are not crippled by fear of failure. They tend to do much better in the long term. "I think people with a growth mindset can say 'I'm excited about it, I'm proud, but it isn't life defining'," Dweck explained.
Parental actions play a role in deciding which camp individuals fall into. Children who are praised for results achieved are more likely to become obsessed with the maintenance of their records, while those who are praised for 'process,' for taking on a hard task and having a go, are more likely to fall into the second, ultimately more successful category.
In 2003, Mair Bell gained a haul of straight A*s at Ysgol y Preseli, a comprehensive school in the Welsh village of Crymych. Later, Bell studied languages at the University of Durham. Following work placements abroad and a stint with Bloomberg in London she spent about two years managing a veterinary practice in South Wales before beginning an MBA at Cardiff University, where she is currently ranked top of her class.
"I try to make sure it doesn't define me as a person," she said of her past GCSEs success. "I'm sure there are plenty of people I know who don't know that about me."
Social life was not totally straightforward either for Bell at school. In her early years she "was probably considered a swot" and "had to have quite a thick skin," a situation not aided by the glasses she wore at the time.
"It was never outright bitchy bullying because you're clever," she explained, "just realising you're not going to be the coolest cat in the school, so just get your head down and spend your lunch hour in the library." However, Bell said overall her memories of school are positive, in particular from the later years. Music and sport meant her achievements were not confined to the academic realm, and she remains close to friends from that time.
Bell added, however, that none of her academic achievements, neither the 12 A*s at GCSE, the four As at A-level nor the first class degree at university, had really boosted her confidence in her own abilities.
Rob O'Donovan, who went on to co-found 'The Eleven,' a 'youth and social communications agency' in east London, sat his GCSEs in 2006 at the independent Wellington College in Berkshire. His path to his current line of work in fact began in his GCSE year, when he and a friend began organising club nights, primarily for students from a range of public schools. Companies like Nintendo and MTV offered sponsorship. These firms' interest in youth trends led to the birth of their business, which O'Donovan ran through his time at university. "A lot of brands we were talking to didn't understand the audience," he explained. "We ended up throwing ourselves into this murky world of advertising and marketing."
While at school O'Donovan did not experience the ostracisation that other high achieving GCSE students felt, possibly because he was at an extremely sporty establishment where he played for the first team for rugby. "My academic stuff, I wouldn't say it was the linchpin of everything I was doing," he said. "I always saw those exams as, to be honest, a jumping hoop to get to the next stage."
O'Donovan's views now of the significance of GCSEs are mixed. "Looking back on it, I think it gave me quite a bit of confidence to do the things I've gone on to do," he said. However, the exams are wholly removed from his current world. "I'm looking at CVs the whole time now, and I never look at GCSEs," he explained.
Si Chen sat GCSEs in 2009. Now 20, Chen arrived in the UK from China when she was 10. She attended St Paul's Girls' School, the fiercely academic independent establishment in Hammersmith. At St Paul's she recalled a pressure-cooker atmosphere. "I really wanted to get perfect marks in every piece of coursework I handed in," she said. "I actually acquired OCD during that time."
Chen remembers the school authorities maintaining that GCSEs played a large role in university entrance. However, after racking up 11 A*s and 6 A grades at AS-level, Oxford rejected her when she applied to read physics. "It was around the A-level, university time that I realised GCSEs were not as important as I'd been told," she said. "I felt a little bit cheated."
Eventually Chen sought professional help and medication to manage her anxiety. In retrospect she believes GCSEs played a role in fomenting her difficulties. "I think I had inherent tendencies towards perfectionism, towards being very anxious, and I think also the experience of doing these things was a catalyst," she said.
Chen is now studying physics at Imperial College in London. She spoke about the problems trying to "curate" her exam record caused her. "As this drive of trying to maintain this perfectionism increased, my actual enjoyment of academic activities decreased," she said. "It also prevented me from learning much from other people, because you just see them as competitors."
The role performed by the GCSE in university admissions is disputed. In May this year the Department of Education published an analysis examining the relative merits of AS-levels, which the government had announced plans to abolish, and GCSEs as tools to predict whether a student would go on to achieve a 2:1 degree or better at university.
The DfE paper claimed "GCSE results are marginally better at predicting whether a student will go on to get a 2:1 or above than AS level results (69.5 per cent accuracy compared to 68.4 per cent)," adding that "without AS Level results, we can still predict degree performance to a similar level of accuracy."
Not everyone agrees. Notably, Cambridge University has spoken out in favour of the retention of the AS-level, based on findings from an internal research unit that runs regression studies on its students to find the best leading indicators for finals performance.
"There is a noticeable correlation from good performance at GCSE, although not merely straight A* performance, but a stronger correlation from AS," explained Mike Sewell, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges. "What we do now say very publically to students, to teachers, is that the better they can do in sixth form exams the stronger the chances of receiving an offer."
Sewell said that each year Cambridge admits some students without a single A* at GCSE, including for its most competitive courses such as medicine.
"We don't rely on GCSE very much. We rely on AS," added Sheila Kiggins, a spokeswoman for the university.
At Oxford, another natural target for high achievers, data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicates that admitted students do have high A* tallies at GCSE. The average last year was 8.16, compared to 6.52 at LSE, 4.60 at Bristol and 4.15 at Exeter.
GCSE A* tallies for admitted Oxford undergraduates vary across subjects; medicine is 9.83, English 7.94 and engineering 7.30, and also between state and independent schools. A privately educated medic averages 9.98 A*s vs. 9.76 for state school, for English the ratio is 8.59 to 7.62 and for engineering it is 7.65 to 7.22. Overall, across subjects, independent school applicants who receive offers average 8.78 A*s as opposed to 7.45 for those from comprehensive schools.
However, stellar GCSEs alone will not get you into Oxford. In 2012, 17,241 students applied to the university, of whom 12,042 had GCSEs - the rest had other, often foreign qualifications; 2,236 had 10 or more A*S. Of those, though, only 1019 received an offer, a strike rate of less than 50 per cent.
The tallies for individual subjects are telling, too: English rejected 72 students with straight A*s, history 68, law 36, medicine 154 and PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) 69. Notably, too, Oxford last year rejected one applicant, a male independent school pupil applying to read physics and philosophy, who had 16 A*s. Meanwhile, the university also admitted 15 applicants without a single A* at GCSE, including one from an independent school.
An Oxford spokeswoman said in an email that the university does not "routinely use GCSE point scores in the undergraduate admissions process in a mechanistic way", and added, "We always advise candidates that there is no absolute requirement for particular grades at GCSE."
Such findings render questionable the behaviour of schools, in particular high-performing independents that place considerable pressure on their 16-year-olds. The ultimate victor when a pupil gets 11 A*S is not their higher education prospects, but the school's own league table position.
"Schools are obviously thinking about themselves first and the pupils second," the headmaster of one major public school told me off the record. "They shouldn't be forced into that position." Likewise, a sixth-former at an academic London girls' independent school reported on results day last year staff loudly corralling straight-A* students for a photo while others were in tears. "Quite a few people thought it wasn't great that it was just 10 A* people on the website," she said.
Earlier this year, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced plans for a radical overhaul of the GCSE system, which may include a new numerical grade regime. For now, "straight 1s" - or whatever it may be - doesn't have quite the same ring to it as straight As, or indeed straight A*s.
There is certainly a case to be made for reform, but with Gove and the Government pledging to move towards a more exam-oriented system instead of coursework, it seems unlikely that a relentless pursuit of perfect marks will change.
The most recent straight-A* candidate I spoke to was Nicola Hall, who took her GCSEs last year at Emmanuel College, a state school in Gateshead. As a staff member was with Hall during our phone interview, she could not perhaps speak as candidly as some of the others.
The 17-year-old praised the way her school, despite its demographically mixed intake, had created a culture in which learning was acceptable. "In a weird way it is kind of cool to work hard," she said. "Academic achievement is supported. It's encouraged, but there's a lot of other achievement that's encouraged as well."
She said her results were better than she expected, but she seemed to rank her flawless exam track record low among the disparate elements of her character, regarding the exams as "a stepping stone to A-level". She hopes to study medicine at university - and will apply to Cambridge - but is less concerned by the institution she ends up at than the opportunity to do her course of choice.
However, Hall admitted that dealing with setbacks in the future may not be straightforward. "There will come a point in life when I will fail at something," she said. "I think it will be difficult, and it'll be something I have to learn from. I think it will be harder given I've done well in the past."
Simon Akam is on Twitter: @simonakam.
Greg Callus (@Greg_Callus) provided statistical analysis.
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