Over the next week, students across the country will be picking up their final exam results. Whether fumbling to open envelopes with sweaty hands or jumping for joy on the evening news, for these guys it’s kind of a big deal. GCSE results can determine acceptance into college or sixth-form, just as A-levels help decide if someone goes to university or not. And of course, they all have a big role to play in job applications.
Employers care about exam results – they show that you can commit to a task, that you have a stock of presumed knowledge, and that you’re a hard worker. If you’ve been hitting the library hard this year, employability could well be the reason. Hopefully, though, you’re also into learning as an end in itself. School can be a drag, but when you find a subject you love, it’s a fantastic feeling (the further along you go, the more control you have over what you study, so if there are bits that you’re not digging it’s probably worth sticking it out). University is remembered by many as the best time of their lives, because you get to learn several new things every day.
However, be wary of falling into something you don’t necessarily want (what some call ‘inauthentic living’). There’s a fading but resilient myth that life tends to go something like: school-college-university-job-no job-death. This is true for some people, yes, but so much is changing that it’s becoming less and less relevant by the day. This whole myth is implicitly predicated upon good exam results – one break in the chain, and it all falls apart. We don’t have to tell you that this is nonsense.
If you’ve never really shone at school, or if your results this week aren’t what you had hoped, this isn’t the end of the road. It’s just a fork in the path. Here’s a few people who would agree: Abraham Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright, Coco Chanel, Henry Ford, James Cameron, Russell Simmons, Simon Cowell, Walt Disney, Terry Pratchett, Richard Branson, Nas, Jane Jacobs, Malcolm X, Julian Assange…none of them completed formal education.
Those names could be – and sometimes are – held up as exceptions that prove the rule: cases where only rare ingenuity guaranteed success against the odds. But we don’t really believe in that. Well, we believe in ingenuity, but we don’t believe that it’s rare. Given the right support, guidance and opportunities, anyone can become successful on their own terms. For many, school doesn’t prove to be that right path.
University is becoming more expensive, which is a shame. A real shame. It needs to be fought, and hard, because it has worrying implications for equality in the next generation. However, it also calls attention to the alternatives outside of university. There’s no reason for you to stop learning just because you don’t go to uni, and there’s no reason you can’t become the next Disney or Chanel regardless of qualifications.
If you can demonstrate hard work, communication skills, and a capacity to innovate, then employers will be drawn to you. The internet, especially, can be a huge weapon in your arsenal. It offers more and more creative alternatives to the CV for self-representation (see our advice on this). Organisations such as notgoingtouni.co.uk and uni’s not for me offer a whole load of resources for non-formal learners, from job vacancies to apprenticeships and travel opportunities.
Formal education, when it works, tends to shape a certain kind of brain: one that is hard-working, methodical and adaptable, but also potentially individualistic and tied to external authority. Non-formal education, or autodidactism, also have positive and negative aspects: they offer independence and freedom, but also, possibly, instability and a lack of expert guidance. We can’t pretend to offer a perfect solution, because (surprise, surprise) everyone’s brain is different. It’s unlikely that academics coast effortlessly through school, and just as rare for autodidacts not to draw on some form of institutional learning. The best thing you can do is to figure out what you want, and decide on the best route to take to get there. If you could use some support deciding on your journey – or a map to help you travel it – then think about applying for Star Track. It’s free, and could set you up for life after school.
Whatever path you take – or rather, create – never stop learning. For many people, the further they get away from school the more excited they become about education. Luckily, it can happen in tonnes of other places. A great place to start is Marc and Angel’s 12 Dozen Places to Educate Yourself Online for Free. They argue that “all education is self-education,” because it’s ultimately up to us wherever we are. So, with all these possibilities, the only question left is: what are you waiting for?
Photo: Richard Lee