Once, one of my dad’s friends asked me how school was and I don’t remember what I said but it must have been negative because his response sticks in my mind: Are you disenchanted with the education system?
The moment I knew I hated my school was when they brought us into the first year of sixth form a day early to tell us that a grade C was a fail. Initially we were shocked, thinking that the actual grading system had been overhauled during the summer holidays. Then we realised they just meant here – that in the eyes of this school, a C was a fail.
I was really fucking disenchanted.
It felt good for an adult to articulate it in such an elegant manner. It made my teenage resentments feel legitimate. My hate had been brewing for a while, but this C business was when it boiled over, when it bloomed into the contrary apathy my teachers would soon complain about at parents’ evening.
It wasn’t a private school but you had to be clever to get in and it preferred to produce doctors and lawyers and Oxbridge students. The year I went into sixth form, they finally scrapped Latin and introduced drama for the first time. It was a cynical move, made to receive funding and they hired one drama teacher for the whole school – at least 500 students.
I took drama as the subject I intended to drop after AS-levels. Though in the end, I never did.
After talking a lot about not going to university at all, I decided instead to apply to arts college in London – which as far as my school was concerned, was the same thing.
My first choice college gave me the lowest offer – three Bs. So the way the system works meant I had to reject four higher offers from mostly better places in order to accept that one. The school didn’t like this lack of back-up plan, but I was predicted at least two As and I felt confident I’d get them.
Of course, I could feel confident – I wasn’t finishing school during a pandemic.
I don’t remember much about that last summer in Birmingham, except that I worked in the pub a lot and a big group of us went to Zakynthos. It was one of those fishbowl-cocktail holidays where there’s probably a nice part of the island that you never get to. I remember I came back with a tan but my mum said I looked very pale underneath it.
Then as expected, I got the grades. Actually, I got a C in biology, but it was immaterial – I got in. And as I’d been anticipating all year, I moved to London come September.
I know now that my school gave me a good education, one I was privileged to receive. And that even to feel apathetic, whilst still getting the grades, is a privilege in itself. School also helped to foster (however belatedly) my love for the subject I’ve spent my adult life pursuing. But I remembered this week the unbelievable pressure we all felt in our A-level years – that these exams would define the rest of our lives. A pressure that was not helped by the strict definitions of success that school subscribed to.
I did however, get to take those big exams, and get the grades I expected (even if one was a “fail”) and I got to go to the uni I wanted at the time I’d hoped. I was able to have my life consumed by those exams for two years and then to choose a career that meant they never ever mattered again.
2020’s year elevens and thirteens aren’t lucky like I was – in the UK, at least. I’m so sad and angry for all the A-level students who’ve been screwed over by the British government this week (and the GSCE students who have it coming in the next few days). Who’ve had their futures jeopardised by an algorithm that downgraded nearly 40% of results, disproportionately affecting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds whilst benefiting private schools.
I’d like to ask them if they’re disenchanted with the education system. I bet I know the answer.
I hope the universities do right by them. I hope they get where they wanted to go.
Most of all, I hope they take their justified anger and register to vote.
A version of this post was sent by email on the 16th August 2020 as part of Internet Care Package – a weekly memoir project in the form of a newsletter. It also includes links to the best things I’ve found on the internet each week and occasional updates on my theatremaking. This blog is a select archive of those emails. Subscribe to get them right in your inbox.