In the words of Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’mice an’ men/ gang aft agley”. That is to say, you might have had the next few years of your life mapped out, you might have been busy researching accommodation, societies and pubs in your first-choice university city, only to find your plans derailed by disappointing A-levels results.
If that’s the situation you find yourself in over the coming days, you will naturally be anxious about the what the future holds, both immediate and long term. But do not despair. When one door closes, another one opens. Here, three individuals explain how they found success in life after experiencing an A-level setback.
61, founding director of Silent Pool Distillers and former commercial director at ITV
A-Level grades in 1978: C, B, D
I was c--p at school. I hadn’t planned to go to university; I was too interested in money. I just wanted to go out and earn, so after my A-levels I started at a car dealers, valeting cars, mostly so I could whizz around in fast cars.
My father happened to have a friend who was a sales director at London Weekend Television, an ITV franchise holder, and he offered me a job as a junior sales assistant in the advertising department. I came out of there in 2007 having worked my way up to commercial director and founded Silent Pool Distillers.
My A-level grades never held me back. It’s more about work ethic. You either want to get out there and graft or you don’t. When I hire people, I’m not interested in grades. I ask if they have a perspective, do they have common sense? Do they graft? Are they flexible? Are they inquisitive? If you can do all that, your grades will never matter.
It’s a state of mind. Turn over every rock, read a lot, keep pushing, keep your brain moving, keep physically moving. You see people who are very well-qualified but just hit a wall and sit on their qualifications.
If you don’t get the grades you wanted you might have to push a bit harder, but it certainly isn’t the be all and end all.
47, founder of cleaning agency Just Helpers, recently turned over her first million
A-Level grades in 1992: B, D, U
For me, A-level results day was awful. I remember going blank, trying to add up the points I needed to get into university and it slowly dawned on me that I’d failed. In one fell swoop it felt like all my options were off the table.
I got into Bedford College via Clearing. I hadn’t considered it. The first time I saw it I remember thinking, “How has this happened?”
They only took me because they were introducing a business studies course and were trying to fill spaces. I could take sports modules (which is what I had wanted to do at Loughborough) as a minor, then business studies as a major. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me.
I went into teaching and coaching for 15 years and then I left to start a charity. The salary was appalling and I needed a side hustle to get a bit of cash flow. I’ve always loved cleaning so that’s what I did. I found I was quickly oversubscribed and within six months I needed extra help, and within a year I decided to turn it into a business. Eight years later, I turned over my first million.
There are many ways to skin a cat and some of the most successful people in our society didn’t even go to university. Having a degree from that first-choice university isn’t the only way. There are many ways to be successful.
47, CEO and co-founder of Rebel Business School
A-Level grades in 1992: D, D, D
I found A-levels really tough. I did science subjects because a careers officer had told me that’s what I needed to do to become a pilot in the RAF. It couldn’t have been further away from what I was actually good at.
It was crushing to get three Ds. I ended up getting a job in Hampshire Police and while I’m proud of my career as an officer, I left in 2003 because I dreamt of being an entrepreneur. I tried a load of ventures, which showed me that the education system does not give you all the skills you need to be successful in life. If you’re academic, the route is clear. If you have a vocational interest, like plumbing, there are routes to do that too. But there are lots of people in the middle with a more entrepreneurial mindset.
That’s why I founded the Rebel Business School, where we teach people how to take an idea from scratch and turn it into a business that can fulfil you emotionally and financially. Since then, we’ve won a Queen’s Award for promoting opportunity and have been backed by organisations including Google and the Department for Work and Pensions. I wouldn’t change what happened with my A-levels because it has put me on the path to success, but I wish I had started thinking entrepreneurially earlier.