What were the most memorable moments from when you were sixteen years old?
Perhaps your list includes some firsts? Innocence traded for experience. No takebacks.
The first time you were drunk or stoned.
Kissed. Laid. Dumped.
Hired for a job. Paid for a job. Fired from a job.
Attended a music festival. Drove a car. Fended for yourself while your parents travelled without you.
Maybe by the time you were sixteen, the idea of firsts seemed quaint or a long-distant memory?
Grew up in a hurry.
Matured before your time.
Became pregnant or a became parent.
Developed a drug dependency or a gambling habit.
Circumstances, luck, or poor choices earned you a criminal record. A custodial sentence. Or both.
Quit school. Commencing a life of fulltime work. Or starting as you mean to go on: benefits-FI.
Escaped or ejected from home.
Travelled the world.
Perhaps you had learned childhood is a privilege, not a right. Part fairytale, part affluent indulgence.
In some places, by sixteen you would have been working for half your life. Pay your way or die trying. A world of life experience away from a (wo)man-child exiting grad school in their mid-twenties with a degree worth of conferred status, a mortgage-sized student debt, and no tangible skills.
This week I had the privilege of accompanying my elder son and his friends to results day. The culmination of five years of secondary school study. Marking the end of their high school journeys.
They were an impressive group of young people.
Blissfully ignorant of how the world works. Full of idealism and hope.
Exhibiting all the excitement, nerves, and gallows humour that such an occasion warrants.
Doors opened at 8:00am. A minor miracle the students had hauled themselves out of bed for the occasion, particularly after a long summer leading a mostly nocturnal existence. Several exhibited staycation-induced jetlag. I’m pretty sure at least one of them was still wearing pyjamas.
Despite it still being summer holidays, most of the good teachers were in attendance. Radiating pride. Reassurance. Excited to see their young charges embark on the next step of their life’s journey.
Big choices would be made that day about their futures.
Choosing which school to attend next.
Choosing which subjects to study.
Opening some doors. Closing many more.
Choices that will have real and material consequences on the rest of their lives. Educational opportunities. Employment prospects. Future earnings potential. Directly or indirectly, much of that will be determined today.
Choose wisely, and a comfortable life of riches and reward could be theirs.
Choose poorly, and horizons narrow as opportunities for education and professional wages diminish.
There is nothing wrong with a life spent working in hospitality. Retail. The military. Or a trade. Good honest work. Alas, work is rarely paid commensurate with the value it contributes to society. Teachers versus investment bankers for example.
Nor are there any guarantees that investing in a university education will equate to a stable secure existence of contentment and “enough”. Lifestyle choices both, which have everything to do with perspective and precious little to do with money.
None of those choices are irredeemable. But from this point forward, the opportunity cost of a significant change in direction can be vast. Measured in years. Quantified in five, six, or seven figure amounts.
The kids believed and understood this. It had been relentlessly drummed into their heads over the last five years by self-important head teachers and uniformly unimpressive career advisors.
Each sixteen-year-old collected their envelope in turn.
Informed it would contain two pieces of paper. Their results, and a letter inviting them to continue for a further two years or rejecting them from the school they had called their own for the last five years.
The reason for this was simple. Schools are measured on academic outcomes achieved. Their reputation, funding, and staff retention depend upon it. Therefore on results day, secondary schools have little choice but to ruthlessly cull the herd. Retaining the talented and gifted. Ritually sacrificing the underachievers, late bloomers, and problem children to the vengeful funding gods.
One boy’s envelope was much fatter than his peers. A lovely fellow who had done things the hard way. Plagued by learning disabilities, he lacked the speed and comprehension of his classmates. To his credit, he usually got there in the end, but his path consumed vastly more time and effort than most.
His mother had taken a second job to pay for private tutoring. Recognising that the state school system was incapable of adequately meeting the needs of someone who could not walk the happy path. Intellectually, she understood that at the macro level it was a simple numbers game, where could the investment of scarce funding achieve the best bang for buck? However, that didn’t meet the needs of children like her son. Who, with a bit of extra help was capable of one day becoming a dentist or lawyer, rather than the low-skilled menial worker the system would be content for him to become.
The kids nervously assembled in a circle, each clutching their envelopes. An earlier agreement committing each to open theirs at the same time. Facing the unknown together. Understanding it would probably be the last time they would all be together in the same place at the same time, destined as they were to scatter to the winds of different schools and courses in pursuit of their dreams.
An unspoken signal saw envelopes torn open and letters extracted.
A moment of stunned silence descended on the hall, as each student skimmed their results and attempted to comprehend their meaning. Pass or fail? Dreams attained or vanquished?
Teachers and parents stood on the outskirts of the circle. Leaning forward anxiously. Tension palpable. Attempting to divine the future from expressions ranging from baffled to bewildered, incomprehension to fear.
The silence was shattered by a spontaneous whoop of joy. Joy proved contagious. Excited laughter and visible relief rippled throughout the room. Result letters were hastily exchanged and reviewed by classmates, to ensure they had been clearly read and correctly understood.
Most of the kids hugged their friends, cheering and ecstatic like they had won Olympic gold.
Most. But not all.
More than a few slunk off. Quietly escaping the celebrations to take stock. Regroup. Cry.
For those achieving results that were good enough, today represented the end of the beginning.
For those who had come up short, today felt like something else entirely: the beginning of the end.
My son and his friends had formed a small scrum in the centre of the excitement. They were cheering the boy with the learning disability, who had repaid his mother’s faith and sacrifice by proving the system wrong. Obtaining an enviable set of results, with scores more than double those that had been predicted for him at the beginning of his high school journey.
He handed his mother his letter. Her smile lit up the room, before she burst into a torrent of elated tears. Her fear had been that her son would be condemned to attending one of the many failing state schools from which obtaining university admission was not a realistic outcome. Instead, he stood a chance of gaining admission to one of the heavily oversubscribed schools with a potential path towards a prosperous white-collar professional future.
I made my way through the crowd of exuberant teenagers. The usual bullying cries of the school leadership team for discipline and decorum were temporarily forgotten amidst the celebrations. Shouldering my way alongside my son, I asked him how he had fared?
His eyes shone with relief. A massive grin beamed from his face. Posture and body language deflating as the accumulated stresses of the past few months dissipated.
It had been two long months since his exams had concluded. Two months to second guess his answers, worrying about what might have been. What else he could have done.
Studying technique improved. Procrastination reduced. Starting earlier. Working harder.
Utilising the time spent in his room productively, rather than looking busy while goofing off.
What was plan A? Plan B? Plan C for schools and courses?
Where would he go if his results didn’t gain admission to any of them? What would happen to him?
The results letter told a tale of good enough.
Not straight A’s. The sorts of grades overachieving children attain and overproud parents boast about. He wasn’t that sort of student. He may have the ability, a theory that had never been tested. He certainly lacked the application required to achieve such an outcome. I can’t criticise, at his age, I had been the same!
But that did not matter, his results were sufficient to clear the admission gate of his preferred schools.
For the last five years, that result letter had been his everything. Both goal post and destination.
Countless hours of classwork. Homework. Revision. Self-study. Tutoring. Summarised on a single page.
Those results would matter for not even a single day. Becoming irrelevant the moment he obtained enrollment confirmation at the next school. The next stage in his journey commences immediately. Rendering all that came before it as superfluous detail. A brutal truth, but truth nonetheless.
I gave him a huge hug. Feeling the tension ebb from my shoulders as I did so. It was a parent’s job to make everything better, projecting confidence and reassurance like a superpower. Radiating varying measures of compassion and menace, whatever it took to clear a path for our progeny to progress.
I was relieved for him. And for me. I wasn’t sure how I would have rescued a results day dumpster fire.
My son’s group of friends had all done well. One topped the school. All met the entrance criteria for their preferred schools and courses, all of which were heavily oversubscribed and still far from certain outcomes.
At this point in a good Hollywood movie, the credits would roll. A happily-ever-after ending delivers the audience with a predictably comforting climax to the story.
But a bad Hollywood movie would feature one last showdown with the villain who just would not quit. Rising from the ashes. Aiming to take down the hero, or go out in a magnificent blaze of mutually assured destruction.
Alas, results day in England is not the makings of a good movie.
The outsourced online enrollment platform used by schools nationwide predictably crashed under the load of three hundred thousand concurrent prospective students all attempting to secure their futures under a “first come, first served” admissions gold rush approach.
By lunchtime, my son’s preferred school had abandoned the wonders of modern technology in favour of old-fashioned email and manual spreadsheet collation. This spawned a whole new world of uncertainty, as places were offered. Then rescinded, due to oversubscription. Then offered once more.
By bedtime, he had secured enrollment at each of his three preferred schools. Under an inefficient system that makes little sense, students must deploy a shotgun approach for enrollment. Applying widely to ensure they secured fallback places, should their preferred options fill up before their application gets processed and they miss out.
Creating unnecessary waiting lists full of fear and uncertainty.
The next morning enrollment for his preferred school and courses had been confirmed. The fallback places released. Making the day of some anxious students who had been sweating promotion from the waitlist.
I was proud of my son, both for what he had achieved and the commendable way he had navigated a broken education system.
His next school had once again produced an impressive array of university admissions, equipping those students fortunate enough to make it in with the quality of education required to progress.
With a bit of luck he’ll emulate their achievements when the time comes.