By Henry Porter
Read the article on the Guardian website
The picture of a 12-year-old boy jumping for joy last week after
receiving an A grade for maths AS level and being declared the youngest
person ever to pass the exam gave me little pleasure. This time of year
reminds me of my mostly useless performance in examinations,
particularly at maths. If it had been up to the bloodless young man who
tried to drill me in what was then called the school maths project, or
new maths, I would still be doing my annual resit of maths O-level.
marks got worse every year until eventually I slipped off the scale and
was not even accorded a grade nine (six was the pass). At that point, I
So this column is dedicated to all the students who
have done poorly and who now skulk in their bedrooms feeling the weight
of failure and humiliation. Without wanting to wipe the bloom off the
results of the star pupils, it is also a warning that a string of grade
As carries you just so far in life; nobody will care about your triumph
in a few years' time. What will count from the moment your education
ends are energy, charm, curiosity, persistence, finishing strongly and
your willingness to defy orthodoxy.
Energy is the greatest of
these but getting used to disappointment is important, too. It builds
another muscle. If you arrive in your first job with the applause of
your teachers still ringing in your ears, never having suffered the
slightest failure or having had to build the defences against rejection
that we tail-end Charlies were privileged to acquire early on, then you
are in for a great shock.
The hidden delight in life is that not
all tomatoes ripen at the same time. Those that ripen early often go on
to do great things but an equal number end up puzzled by their inability
to get to grips with a world that is not invigilated by an examinations
board looking for quotas of conventional knowledge. For those who
develop later, in their twenties, thirties and perhaps forties, life can
be remarkably rewarding. As they feel the powers and confidence grow,
they will see the morning glories of their school days fade.
experience, the satisfaction is never ending, if only because the sense
of failure heaped on young people during their education can be so
damned painful. Two fingers raised to the ghosts of the men who looked
down at the 14-year-old me with that mixture of despair, fatigue and
pity is, I am ashamed to say, still my occasional pleasure.
among the Gradgrinds and Pecksniffs of my school years, there were two
inspiring men who taught me history and English literature. As a result,
I got a decent history A-level and just about passed English.
also had a surprise success in my geography O-level, which taught me
another lesson: luck sometimes counts for more in life than preparation.
In those days, we were expected to interpret a slice of an ordnance
survey map and explain the various features shown.
I opened the
paper, unfolded the map and, to my astonishment, saw the village where I
lived. I knew every feature intimately - the meandering course of the
Avon, the flood-control measures, the lock, levees, the deciduous woods
and the church with the Norman-style tower. I passed and with quite a
Dr Anthony Seldon, the new headmaster of
Wellington, where I spent five years in a sort of long daydream, has now
decided that students should be taught how to be happy using the
methods of positive psychology. 'I have seen far too many tortured and
unhappy pupils,' he wrote, 'who have achieved four or five A grades at
A-level. If they can achieve these grades while leading balanced lives -
and if they blossom as human beings, then all is well and good. But as
any teacher will know, this isn't always the case with high achievers.
Neither is it with high achievers in life. These driven people see their
lives flash by in fast living and fast cars and most fail to realise
they are missing the point of life.'
To add 'happiness skills' to a
student's portfolio is certainly a good idea, and if Dr Seldon plans to
deploy cognitive therapy, to my mind one of the great discoveries of
the past few decades, even better. To teach people how to perceive their
place in the world and not to view life as a series of threats and
challenges to the ego should be more and more of a priority.
would add another skill, summarised in a quote from Andre Gide, which I
found while idling in a second-hand bookshop. 'You who will come when I
have ceased to hear the noises of this earth and to taste its dew upon
my lips, it is for you I write these pages; for perhaps you are not
sufficiently amazed at being alive; you do not wonder as you should at
this astounding miracle of your life.'
Beats a grade A in maths.