Frances Hill, who left school at 16 to work in a factory, will receive a silver medal tomorrow from the examination board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. To gain it, she beat more than 62,000 other candidates.
David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, will present the awards to Mrs Hill and 11 other students who came top in their subjects. Two more mature students, Jennifer Hayes, 43, a GP from Eccles, Greater Manchester, and Helen Martin, 23, a physiotherapist from Warrington, Cheshire, also came top in politics and human biology respectively. All are in contention for the exam board's National Student of the Year award.
Mrs Hill, who has three children, studied for the exam at evening classes at an adult education centre. She had been placed with foster parents at the age of 14, when her mother committed suicide.
"I got five O levels and was going to do my A-levels but in the intervening summer I got a job in a factory and thought that earning pounds 17 a week was the bee's knees," she said.
"I think I always had potential but I had a very bad home life. My mother was an alcoholic and had four children by the time she was 22 so life was fairly chaotic. It was not an atmosphere that was conducive to work. When she died we were all split up."
She remembers one incident in which the man her mother was living with cut his wrists and locked the rest of the family outside the house. She recalls that the following day, he sat at the dinner table in his still blood-stained T-shirt.
Mrs Hill started her A-level course after taking a creative writing course because she wanted to be teacher and is now taking a degree in English and classical studies at St Mary's University College in Twickenham, south- west London. She is writing a novel and her autobiography. After converting to Christianity at the age of 17, she also writes articles for Christian publications.
She took the A-level exam in her stride, completing the course in one year instead of the usual two. "I breathe English and words. The exam was an absolute joy. To sit there for three hours and to be able to write was a luxury," she said.
Mrs Hill's eldest daughter has just received an A grade in GCSE English but has decided not to take the subject at A-level. "I feel there would be no problem but she feels she just couldn't compete," she said.
Ms Hayes, the GP, who came joint top in the law and politics group of subjects, has enrolled on an Open University law course.
Mr Blunkett is keen to promote the notion of lifelong learning. The Government wants more older people to return to education to acquire or update skills.