Pictures of elated teenagers jumping with joy and stories about high-achieving students gaining places at Oxbridge were all over the news last week. But not everyone has been celebrating A-level success and the publication of the results of new, tougher GCSEs on Thursday will undoubtedly see more pupils unhappy with their grades.

The overall A-level pass rate (grades A*-E) was 97.6% this year, the lowest figure since 2010, and the proportion of students gaining C grades or above dropped from 79% to 78.4% in England, following the introduction of more challenging exams.

For some of the 129,700 A-level students who last Thursday woke to find they did not have a place at university because they did not achieve the grades needed, the future may have looked bleak – or at least a bit cloudy. But you never know where you may find a silver lining. We asked five people with experience of exam disappointment for their strategies and coping mechanisms.

Sarah Weller and her son, Fred.

Sarah Weller and her son, Fred. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

The parent and the high-achieving student

“At school you have such myopic focus, and you have to specialise so early,” says Fred Weller, 22. “I hadn’t thought about an alternative plan if I didn’t achieve the A-level grades I needed to study medicine.

“When I got my results [he was predicted three As and got three Bs], my life stretched before me like a black hole and my immediate urge was to be apathetic and not do anything about it.

“Comparing myself to my peers only made it worse. I felt so alone that day. I remember apologising to my mum for letting her down, and her turning round and telling me I was being an idiot. But in my mind, I was an abject failure.”

His mother Sarah, 55, says: “I remember Fred was gutted about his results but, personally, I wasn’t disappointed. My priority has always been his happiness. He had decided at 14 he wanted to study medicine, which is very young. At the back of my mind, I had always been concerned he was veering away from his natural interest in the humanities. In my opinion, you should study something that makes your heart sing.”

She encouraged him to look for another course through clearing. “When he saw a classics course he could apply for, I reminded him about how much, as a small boy, he had enjoyed learning about the Greek and Roman myths. We stressed that, if he gave it a go but hated it, he could come home at Christmas and we would come up with another plan together.”

“That really helped,” says Fred. “I felt massively supported.” He got in and “never looked back,” Sarah says. After winning an award for his high marks in his BA, he is now studying for an MA in classics.

“My experience taught me why hard work is necessary but also that I should do what I want to do, rather than what I think I should be doing,” Fred says. “Now I look back and am proud of how I handled the situation. My results drove me to succeed.”

Steven Bartlett.

Steven Bartlett. Photograph: The Social Chain Group

The entrepreneur

“I opened my A-level grades and they were even lower than I’d thought they would be,” says Steven Bartlett, 25, co-founder of the Social Chain Group, a social media marketing company. He received B, C and D, lower than had been predicted.

“I was disappointed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to Newcastle University as I’d planned. But I just reminded myself I was going to be successful regardless. I knew I was good at influencing other people and I’d already started my own business. I said to myself: you’ve messed up your grades, now you better hope they don’t matter as much as everyone says they do. I suspected they were lying, that I didn’t need an A* to succeed in life – and I was right.”

The global company Bartlett founded now turns over tens of millions of pounds a year and he is a multimillionaire. “I grew up very poor,” he says. “My mum can’t read or write. She left school in Africa at the age of seven. She was very upset when she heard about my grades and later, when I dropped out of the university I got into through clearing, she stopped speaking to me.

“Both times, I tried to rationalise why she felt that way. I knew it wasn’t because I was a failure or had hurt anyone. It was because she had a very narrow view of what success was. In her opinion, as long as I succeeded in education I would be OK. She loves me and was trying to protect me.” It all comes down to perspective. I think the only real danger of getting a bad grade is letting a bad grade get to you.”

Primrose Kitten.

Primrose Kitten. Photograph: Sarah Bardsley

The teacher

“Students should look at these results as just a stepping stone,” says Primrose Kitten, 35, a London secondary school teacher and vlogger who creates GCSE and A-level revision videos. “If you’ve got the results you need to move on to university, college or a job you want, in the end, your grades won’t matter. If you didn’t get what you need, you still have lots of other options. Maybe you’ll find something even better to study or do.

“Try to put your current circumstances into perspective. Your results might feel like a big deal right now, but they are just letters and numbers. They are not representative of your character or worth. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others who may have different resources. Your results do not dictate how successful you are going to be in the future.

“From now on, you get to make your own choices about what you are going to do with the rest of your life. Whatever you do, don’t allow your grades to limit you. Take what you’ve got and do what you want. There are so many fantastic and exciting things out there waiting for you. The world is your oyster.”

Professor Stephen Joseph.

Professor Stephen Joseph.

The psychologist

“Exam results can be a devastating, traumatic experience,” says psychologist Stephen Joseph, 54, author of Authentic: How to be Yourself and Why it Matters. “Your sense of yourself and your place in the world may come crashing down. But remember the education system has a very narrow interpretation of what skills matter. You may have skills and abilities, all yet to flourish, which have been untapped by examiners.

“If you know yourself well enough, you may already be aware of the tension between you and the education system. You may have studied subjects which wouldn’t really have been your first choice and be on a path in life which isn’t really your own, when you hit a crunch point like exam results day. It’s actually an opportunity to redirect your life and follow your passions – but that can be very hard, because until that point, your life hasn’t been your own.

“To own yourself, you must be able to stand your ground, to say: this is me, this is what I want, this is the direction I want to go in, and resist the pressures of other people. It won’t happen overnight. People will need to give you freedom to find your own path and strengths.

“Let your goals be your own – the things you really want to pursue in life. Find out what is meaningful to you and which activities put you in a state of flow, where time just slips by. That should give you a clue about what you should be doing in your life.”


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