A world apart from A-levels

If you found out this morning that you blew it, here are 10 good reasons not to worry
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The Independent Online
It is that morning. If you are one of the 300,000 sixth-formers who learn your A-level grades today, this one is for you.

First, congratulations to those who have got the grades they need. Ignore the sneers that the general standard has been falling: the British A-level is the hardest set of mass exams sat by 18-year-olds anywhere in the world. They are narrow, of course, but the compensation is that the equivalent standard would be first- or second-year university in other countries.

So anyone who has done well today should know that he or she is world- class - not just good by the standards of this medium-sized nation, but good by the standards of the world. That is much more important than any home-grown rumpus over declining achievement, for the market for skills has become global. To be good by world standards is to have the gift of mobility: the bright can move anywhere on the globe.

Now, commiserations to those who have bombed. The usual comfort trotted out is to list the people who did badly at school but then made a conspicuous success of their lives. But there is another and more convincing cause for comfort: I suspect that A-level grades will be less of a make-or- break event in people's lives in the future than they have been in the past. Here are 10 reasons why.

Number one: the expansion of further education has meant that it is no longer necessary to go to "brand name" universities. Everyone has focused on the increased quantity of higher education; much less attention has been paid to the improved quality. But huge effort has gone into this - witness the variety and energy of the new universities; the extent to which they seek to put their wares on display; their sensitivity to the needs of local employers. It is fascinating to see that it is always the new universities who are most vigorous in publicising their activities and achievements.

It would be absurd to downplay the advantages of an established brand name in education, as in anything else. But anyone whose results exclude them from the upper-crust colleges should be aware that there is a lot else out there to go for.

Number two: in many areas, the emphasis is shifting to postgraduate work. The international dimension is important here. An Oxbridge first degree does not command the respect in the US that it does here; it has to be buttressed by postgrad qualifications. So someone who is pulled down by poor A-levels but does manage some sort of reasonable first degree can always retrieve it by doing postgrad. If you have a doctorate from Stamford, no one is going to worry about what grade you got in your Biology A-level.

Number three: learning is less and less a one-shot affair undertaken in teens and early twenties, and more and more a lumpy process taking place on and off throughout life. We cannot learn all we need to know by our early twenties, partly because many of the things we will need to know have not yet been invented, and partly because careers have become so fragmented that everyone needs to keep on learning new things.

Number four: leading on from this, our education system is creating more and more "loops" which enable people who have to left education to flip back into it. Obvious examples include the Open University or the myriad training courses which have sprung up to service commercial needs. Less obvious is the way in which conventional higher education has been opened to "mature" students. So anyone who misses out now ought to be able to find ways back later on.

Number five: technology is affecting the education process in two main ways. In education itself, it is democratising access to knowledge: people can learn at their own pace, probably using screen-based systems rather than waiting to be taught by others. Already higher education establishments are shifting education to linked PCs, self-learning and tutorials, rather than lectures and exams. Naturally someone has to maintain quality control, but the effect of the new screen-based technologies has been to open the access pipe to people who might previously have been excluded.

Number six: technology is also altering the range of needed skills. Many of the new skills required by the marketplace do depend on having a higher education, but it may not be the sort of higher education to which conventional good A-level results would lead. Changing technology does not mean that bad exam results are unimportant for all; but it may mean that since the A-levels are not testing new skills, they are unimportant for some.

Number seven: wise employers are now trying to build teams with different sets of skills. They still need the Double Firsts and the PhDs; but they also need the streetwise, the salespeople, the unconventional thinkers. Twenty years ago, they would have worried about bad exam results; nowadays they still do - for some jobs. For many others, they couldn't care less. (Unfortunate example: look how Nick Leeson, not an academic high-flyer, initially prospered in a stuffy City bank.)

Number eight: not all the new jobs will be with conventional employers, and even when they are, the traditional management skills are being reassessed. The scarcest resource is entrepreneurship: companies can buy everything else, but the way they will distinguish themselves from the herd is by generating, nurturing and encouraging entrepreneurship. And if they don't want entrepreneurs, anyone with those skills can always work for themselves.

Number nine: alongside entrepreneurship, the skills most in demand are those of performers: writers, actors, producers, popular musicians and so on. You do not need an A-level to run a band.

But suppose the A-levels have been a disaster, you cannot bear to find some way back into higher education, you are not an entrepreneur and you do not fancy your chances applying for a job with Oasis. Is there anything to cheer about?

Yes there is: fact number 10. This year's crop of 18-year-olds is the smallest age cohort since the war. Young people are rare. The inexorable laws of supply and demand are working in your favour. Forget about demand; if supply is more limited, the price must go up.

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