Testing times

Instead of obsessing over exam results, let’s give young people better career advice

There are rumours A-levels and GCSEs could be on their last legs; those giants brought to collapse by the drip-drip of criticism from newspaper columnists since the suspension of examinations for teacher-assessed grades.

The issue: unsustainable grade inflation. The idea that not enough children fail examinations nowadays for them to be worthy of tests at all has been around for years. Though, the chance these arbiters of adolescent success could befall a great defenestration seems nearer now than ever.

Replacing letters with numbers, replacing acronyms with other acronyms: ministers will seek fixes ahead of the first summer of examinations when, logically, the numbers receiving As and A*s will drop a few percentage points again. A-level government and politics question: how does a minister reassure the class of 2022 that their lower grades are excellent without demeaning the 2020 and 2021 grades they endorsed breathlessly in front of every camera in their orbit? Answers on the back of a postcard addressed: Gavin Williamson, The Government, London.

I am no expert on the purpose and potential of examinations, but it stands to reason that there should be other ways to assess strengths and weaknesses. I am fortunate to be related to two extremely bright, conscientious, disciplined people who struggled enormously with tests and school at large. These people weren't isolated cases or geniuses: they were two of the millions more capable than perhaps their school certificates suggest. It'd be good if those people could leave school with their heads held high, not burying their frowns in a creased brown envelope spelling out sorrows in unpleasant-looking capital letters.

I wasn't one of those people: I left with good grades and swam off in the direction my teachers pointed. And that's what I want I changing: readjust grade boundaries and competencies all you like, but please do not forget the importance of career (and life) advice to a young person.

There are some things I wish a teacher had told me.

A 20-question career quiz doesn't cut it. Incidentally, I – who struggles to be on time to anything – was told at the age of 16 that, based on my answers, I was well-suited to a career in logistics: I'm sure those marshalling lorries, pallets and containers across Britain have a ball, but, I'm sorry, what an appalling suggestion for a child with no interest in anything other than history and English literature.

Maybe careers advice is terrible because most 16 to 18-year-olds don't have a clue what they want to do. "I'm not sure, Miss, I don't know what job I want to do," says Pupil. "Urgh," replies Teacher, rolling her eyes. "Here are three leaflets: biomedical scientist, tour guide and elevator repair specialist. Let me know if you want me to secure you some work experience."

I don't think teenagers should know what they want to do. I don't think we should necessarily ask them. .

Instead, we should reassure them there's more time than they think: no matter what your parents say, no matter what depressing statement Gavin gives about the need to secure graduate employment within seconds of tossing your mortarboard. I am 27 and still working it out. I think rushing to something before you're ready is a little unwise. Some things in life are at a pace set by others, but degrees, further education and apprenticeships are not such things. Be sure of your subject, of yourself, have a chance to see yourself in a setting other than school or classrooms; confidence breeds confidence and arriving a little older, wiser, and more assured will not set you back.

The next thing we should do is listen to them: really, properly listen. Let the half-baked aspirations emerge, the blueprint, the pencilled scribblings. We don't, I think, finish growing and maturing when we collect our A-levels or our degrees. Remind them of this fact – you won't do one job, one career, live one life from now until pensioned off at 65/70/90/110 (who knows). Remind them what they want now will and should change. So, too, will jobs. There is no plan we can make that can last more than five years. The rest is judicial decision-making, keeping doors ajar, laying the groundwork, and hoping for the best. Focus on what sort of person they are. What tasks do they enjoy and loathe, and what gives and saps their energy? Is it teams, the outdoors, seclusion, mending things or stationery? Again, I wish I’d had adults around me ready to offer impartial advice.

Alongside that, remind them that failure is rarely terminal or lasting. It is also, rarely, failure. If it doesn't matter in five years, it doesn't matter.

These points might not seem revolutionary but, in my experience, we neither prepare young people with a map to the future, neither we do we reassure them that all will work out OK in the end. Instead, we scare them with stories of previous cohorts to get them to deliver the best marks.

Difficult decisions lay ahead: the first is what to do after school. Like most decisions, it is rarely the final say on the matter. It can be undone and redone. Schooling was to a timetable set by others; the first thing to learn is that it’s you who now monitors the minutes, so stop and take a breath.