It's A-levels Results Day, or 'National Hovering Teenager Day', as web-site The Poke called it. The papers are full of the usual stuff so to add to that here is the last part of the speech I gave to the Prize-Winners at my old school, King Charles I School, Kidderminster (coincidentally also Labour's Tom Watson's old school) when I was very kindly asked to present the prizes and give a little speech at the end. Obviously, it's aimed at those who did well, like those who got all their A's today, but it was implicitly (as I hope is clear) also aimed at those who didn't do well, or at those who don't do so well in future years.
"I have just a couple more points to pass on, on the basis of twenty-five years, roughly equally split between teaching students of the usual age, a couple of years older than you, and teaching mature students, of any age up to their seventies. The first thing is that you should be very proud of your achievement this year and keep that with you. That’s vital, but you shouldn’t let it weigh on you or feel that it defines you. One thing I have seen of our students is how much pressure they put on themselves. Being high achievers, like you all, they see anything less than a prize-winning performance as failure, and that is not only nonsense; it is really dangerous. So you need to work hard and do your best – of course you do – it’d be mad to suggest anything else – but you also need to give yourselves a break, know when you can take it a bit easier, and appreciate that life and education involves other things than results – heresy though that is in this day and age! As I said, I enjoyed my schooldays and didn’t always work as hard as I should have done, but turned out OK on the whole (indeed the worst year of my university career was when I decided I ought to work harder). If you’re normal, some years you won’t win; as long as you’ve given it your best shot, that's all that matters. The best advice I got from my supervisor, in the year I just referred to, was that is was better to be the person who got a 2:1 and had a good time than be the person who would have got a First if he hadn’t had a nervous breakdown. As a result I managed to get a balance, have a good time and get a first. Sometimes trying things out that don’t pay off is at least as valuable as sticking to the tried and tested, the guaranteed prize-winning. Education is – or it ought to be – as much about experience and experiment (experimenté means both experimented and experienced in French) as it is about high scores.
"My second, and last, point is therefore that you shouldn’t feel that what you’re successful at today defines what you’ll do for the rest of your life. Enjoy and take pride in your success for its success – for the achievement – not for the area it was in. Just as you can get better through life – I was much better academically at 21 than at 16 or 18, and a way better historian at 40 than at 30, and I work on really very different subjects – like philosophy – now (at 50) compared with when I was 40 – teaching mature students showed me that people can not only hit their stride much later in life but also that they could change direction at all points of life and be successful in new and quite different areas. Your success today shows your potential to be able to do whatever you like, it’s not a life sentence.
"People use that silly phrase “life’s too short.” Actually, as Billy Connolly (I think) once said, life’s the longest thing you ever do. Life’s a long game and young people like you have it all to play for."