On the 16th August I was taken back to my own A level results day and also to the day of A level results for the twenty-one young women I interviewed for my PhD research. These young women collected their A level results in August 2006 and as one might expect, it was a mixed bag of joy, surprise and disappointment. Of the twenty-one, fifteen took up places at university that year. Some had to retake, others decided to defer their university place, or to reject it altogether.
The young women with whom I spoke were from different backgrounds (in terms of ethnicity) but were from working-class families. They attended a school at which university attendance had largely been normalised over the previous ten or so years and, despite the (increasing) cost, university seemed like a viable and attractive option for this group. Not only would it enable them to study a subject they enjoyed, but it would (as they were constantly being told – by teachers, media and the government) improve their employment prospects and earning potential. Many of the young women spoke about achieving the kind of recognition which our society rarely accords young women (let alone working-class women): being recognised as a professional, as an intellectual and expert were all important. These young women did not want to be sexualised, infantilised, or looked-down upon for their South London accent. They wanted to be taken seriously and to be ‘someone’.
What strikes me about A level results day therefore, is how much is at stake for young people (identities, trajectories, hopes and dreams) and how much about the lives of the young people collecting their results becomes hidden and untold. Our A level results, in print and official, become the objective markers of our educational efforts, our ‘talent’ and our ability as learners. They indicate to universities our ‘potential’. Yet, it is quite clear that there are many reasons for ‘success’ and ‘failure’ at A level: material living conditions, ‘cultural capital’, levels of parental education, school culture, relationships with teachers, and gendered expectations are all factors in this process. It is also clear that these versions of ‘potential’ and ‘aspiration’, which our educational system strives to produce, are narrowly defined and deeply connected to middle-class ideas and ideals about the ‘worthwhile’ and the ‘worthy’.
One of the young women I spoke to achieved very high grades at A level, but defied the normative ideal and had a baby with her partner instead of going to university. This might be seen as a courageous act, particularly as this young woman would have been only too aware of how her diversion from the ‘accepted’ trajectory could mark her as ‘other’ to the ‘can do’ girl of neoliberalism. When we look at the detail of people’s lives, the rhetoric which marks some lives as ‘successes’ and others as ‘failures’ become unsustainable (Hey and Evans, 2009). This is what we should remind ourselves on A level results day.
Sarah Evans (British Library)
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