Today is the stressful event that is A Level Results Day for students across some of the UK, as young people in England, Northern Ireland and Wales get the results that will help direct the next few years of what they do. Many will have conditional university offers which will require them to get certain grades to gain acceptance to the courses they wish to study. My A Level Results Day was 21 years ago, when an eighteen year old version of me was waiting to find out if I would get the grades I needed. To be honest, I was relatively confident, as I needed three grade Cs from the four A levels that I was studying, and my predicted grades were better than that.
My good friend Stewart, though, was in a more stressful situation. Whilst I was hoping to be heading off to study a relatively normal science course in Physics & Astrophysics at the Queen’s University of Belfast, Stewart hoped his next few years would be taken up studying medicine at the University of Dundee. To do that, he needed two Bs and a C. We knew that he would be more than capable of getting the grades, but it might be tight.
We had to go to school to get our results. Stewart lived a couple of miles from me, out in the countryside. He appeared at my house just before 8am on the morning in question, having had a very early start, as he was very keen to find out what the future may hold. The short walk to the school was taken up with a comparison as to what university life might hold, compared to what a year re-sitting A Levels might be like.
We were among the first students to turn up to get our results. Two years earlier, we had been doing the same thing to get our GCSE results, although there was much less stress that time as we were all confident that we would get what we needed to return to sixth form and the world of A levels. The atmosphere was very different this time. We got the envelopes that held our future. Or, at least, held most of our future. Most of our A levels were via the Northern Ireland exam board, but the school had recently moved a few subjects to some other boards. The Northern Ireland results had arrived, the results from the other boards had not. We opened ours. I had the grades I needed from these three, with a fourth to come. Relief. Stewart had the two Bs that he needed. He was delighted. Then, the tense wait for the result of results. After what was probably a handful of minutes, but what seemed like all morning, the next series of envelopes arrived. These included the physics results for me and Stewart, which we suspected would be my best result and the one Stewart was most worried about. We opened the envelopes. I was delighted with an A, but Stewart was beyond delighted with the grade C that he needed. He jumped in the air, ecstatic that the career that he had wanted for so long as a medical doctor was on course. Our headmaster came to say hi. Stewart picked him up and hugged him.
The normal course of action on A Level Results Day was to spend it walking around the town and having the “how did you do?” conversation with all of your classmates. We, however, had agreed that we would head to Belfast for the day. We were young men about to leave home and experience the next steps of adulthood. What rock and roll activities did we have planned? We headed to the University area – a lovely part of South Belfast, a short walk from the city centre – and spent the day in the Ulster Museum. Perhaps not as crazy a day as it could have been. It wasn’t that different from the last day of our exams. We spent that walking through the hills behind our home town of Larne, looking at how the hills rolled down to the sea. There should have been three of us, but the third, Paul, who we assumed would get the three Cs that he needed, had actually just missed the grades that he needed. He calmly explained that he was going to investigate options through the Clearing system, which meant that he could not come to Belfast with us. As it turned out, he got on to the course that he wanted over four years rather than three. He obviously enjoyed it, as after his first degree, he stayed to complete a second, this time a Masters, and is still working as a scientist.
After a day in the museum, we headed back to Larne, and to the local Highways Hotel – a local landmark and sadly recently closed – were there was a “blowout” planned for those to celebrate their success. As you can imagine, a couple of hundred eighteen year olds celebrating their exam successes, or commiserating not getting quite what they wanted made for quite a night out.
Even though more than two decades have passed since we got our results, I am still reminded of that day one Thursday each August. Looking at what has happened to us all since that day, the stresses of that day are put in context. For some, like Stewart, the success delivered exactly what they wanted, and he is now a qualified doctor and a general practitioner. It’s the role that I could have imagined Stewart doing since we were at primary school together. Some of those, though, who did not get the results that they wanted, like Paul, and plenty of others, found a way around the immediate setback, and have continued successfully. Others had a huge shock, and ended up changing what they wanted to do. Whatever the results were, the vast majority went on to do things they wanted, and to enjoy doing it. At the time, it was hard to see beyond the results. It was a message none of us would have believed at the time, but whatever the piece of paper in that envelope said, life does go on.
Twenty one years after our A Level Results Day, I will spend this evening having dinner with an old classmate from those times. I’m sure that day will be high on the list of topics of conversation.
The best of luck to all those getting their results today. I hope that you all get the grades that you want or need, but more than that, I hope that whatever your results are, your future is wonderful.