They're the kind of teenagers we can't get enough of at this time of year: girls with long, glossy hair embracing each other on a lawn with mellow stone buildings in the background.
Tamara (left, in our imaginary picture) has just heard that she's achieved two A* grades in her A-levels and will be going to Warwick, while Charlotte (middle) is off to study medicine at Cambridge. Boys are allowed to feature in this annual August beauty contest for high-achievers, especially if their families belong to an ethnic minority, but the preference is for brainy girls. And there definitely isn't a hoodie or a baseball cap in sight.
Yesterday's A-level results produced the usual crop of celebratory photographs, along with a fanfare of announcements about how well candidates have done: it's been another record year for pass rates, which have risen to 97.8 per cent, and boys have achieved as many top grades as girls. This year's big story is about the scramble as aspiring students rush to get into university before next year's hike in fees, leaving 185,000 candidates competing for 29,000 unfilled places on degree courses. One angry young woman didn't improve her chances when she went on Twitter to describe the Ucas website, which crashed under the weight of disappointed candidates trying to find alternative courses, as "literally the worst thing in the world". Someone please book that girl on to the next available flight to Somalia.
This year's A-level results are impressive, and no doubt a lot of young adults have worked very hard. But there's another story here, about class and the north-south divide, which doesn't reflect anything like as well on the UK's educational system. The annual ritual of publishing A-level results contains within it an absolutely shocking story about the impact on life chances of privilege and geography. Pupils at private schools, which educate only 6.5 per cent of children in the UK, achieved 30 per cent of A* grades at A-level this year. That's the same proportion as last year, and yesterday's results are not expected to show a fairer distribution in the effect of location on results. Last year pupils in the affluent south-east of England, which accounted for 19 per cent of A-level entries, achieved 23 per cent of A* grades; the north-east produced only three per cent of A*s from four per cent of entries.
How many Geordie lads and lasses, I wonder, were photographed leaping for joy in yesterday's newspapers? Because of where they happen to live and their family background, kids from this area are less likely to sit A-levels or get the top grades that would get them into world-class universities. The standard offer at Cambridge is currently an A* and two As; research published earlier this year suggests that pupils from private schools are 55 times more likely to get a place at Oxbridge than state school pupils who receive free school meals (a recognised indicator of poverty). Geography turns out to have a significant effect on where candidates go to university, with urban universities such as the LSE, UCL and Liverpool taking a much higher proportion of students who were entitled to free school meals than Oxford or Cambridge.
One of yesterday's most dramatic revelations was the confidence gap between inner-city state schools and private establishments, where savvy teachers know how to get free publicity. Henrietta Lightwood, head of admissions at Badminton girls' school, sent out a press release promising introductions to three A-level students "who would make very good case studies – they speak extremely well and take a good picture". She enthused that one girl had "single-handedly" delivered a foal while another had designed a solar-powered car, providing an insight into a world of achievement and privilege – fees for senior school boarders at Badminton will be £9,740- a-term from September – which could hardly be further from the experience of most teenagers in this country.
The problem with the annual August frenzy over exam results is it draws attention away from hundreds of thousands of young adults who have minimal qualifications, little hope and no jobs. While commentators focus on the plight of A-level students who haven't quite achieved the grades they hoped for, huge numbers of their peers are unemployed; most didn't join in last week's riots – the north-east was largely spared, despite having the highest rate of youth unemployment in the country – but MPs have been warning for some time about the existence of a "lost generation". According to analysis carried out by the GMB union, almost a third of young adults (31.6 per cent) are out of work in Middlesbrough; the figure is 29.4 per cent in Redcar and Cleveland, while almost a quarter of people aged 16 to 24 in Sunderland have no jobs.
During the past few days, CCTV pictures have provided a rogues' gallery of young rioters, some of whom are heading for custodial sentences. Yesterday produced a contrasting set of images: high-achieving young people on their way to successful careers in law, medicine or the arts. Neither tells the whole truth about young people in this country, but they're a reminder we live in a society where class and geography matter as much as ability.
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