Lynne Mortimer: Exam results, do they matter? Well, More at 16 than at 60

What do exam results matter when you reach 60?

What do exam results matter when you reach 60? - Credit: Archant

At the risk of falling headfirst into the nostalgia pit, I have been remembering the angst of waiting for exam results. First there were O levels (ask your grandparents) and then, two years later in 1973, came A levels but not as we know them today.

I did nine O levels. A few bright sparks who didn’t go off to the shops for a smoke at lunchtime or liaise with boyfriends in a nearby cul-de-sac took a few more. I held out little hope for a full house and my fears were realised when I failed German and scraped through maths and geography. Our geography teacher would write on the blackboard while addressing the class but his dual aspect meant he erased the chalk with the sleeve of his green corduroy jacket as he moved across the board. Not that this in any way impinged on my grade. I simply didn’t learn the map of the canal system in Belgium. Is that still on the syllabus?

My only top grade was in English language. This was a relief because my teacher had written, in my most recent end-of-term report: “When Lynne is as famous as James Joyce, then she can afford to ignore syntax.” Phew, just as well I became a journalist then. (See me, please, Lynne. ED)

I have never forgotten her words and might even attribute my total inability to read Joyce’s Ulysses to this stern admonishment.

The subjects, except for art, which was a bit, well, arty, tended to be rather prosaic - maths, English language, English literature, French, history, physics, chemistry, biology etc. Subjects were tied into the academic austerity of the Sixties. Some teachers would encourage us to think for ourselves, others would dictate from a fat pile of notes in faded ink, presumably the same stuff they’d been using for years.


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Forty years ago, the exams required us to put our pens and pencils into a see-through bag to prevent any smuggling of text books into the exam hall. Any quotes had to be learnt by heart. I expect the examiners got sick to death of reading: “Beware the Ides of March,” and “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears,” in the Julius Caesar answers. They were certainly the two quotes I used. (For my A level Shakespeare I pretty much relied on “Goats and monkeys” from Othello and the stage direction “Exit pursued by a bear” for The Winter’s Tale.)

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With eight O levels under my wide, elasticated 1970s belt I went off to do A levels, just three (it was the norm unless you were going to be a doctor), at the local technical college. I studied English, political history and economics from a limited number of options. At university, I went off to do politics and changed to economics. Boy, did I know how to live.

Today? Take your pick. Brewing and distilling, circus and physical performance, hand embroidery, floral design, theatre practice and puppetry, ethical hacking, games, imaginative writing. I have to say I’m drawn to puppetry, having two grandsons who adore Sooty and Sweep. “Where’s Sooty’s stick?” demands little George when I grapple inexpertly with the little yellow bear puppet (he is referring, of course, to Sooty’s magic wand). “Sooty lost it,” I lie.

Before I went off to uni, a small chap from British Road Services, arrived on our doorstep to pick up my large metal trunk stuffed with books, towels and bedlinen. It was bigger than he was but, without the faintest stagger, he hitched it up over his shoulder, walked down the front path and set it down in the back of his lorry. I got my first pang of homesickness as the van drove off. My younger sister, happily, showed no interest in moving into my bedroom when I went away. Just as well because I’d booby-trapped my bed.

All over the country, there are 16 and 18-year-olds on tenterhooks awaiting those results. With the benefit of hindsight, I can reveal they are not the be all and end all even though it seemed like it at the time. It turns out that people will still love you, still talk to you and still be friends with you if you don’t get straight A*s. The world is still your oyster (Merry Wives of Windsor - almost)

See more from Lynne here

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