As A-level results are celebrated today, there are deeper questions lurking about our education system, says Joseph Kelly

I have to confess it wasn’t one of my favourite jobs in my 30 plus years of journalism. The annual ritual of sifting through school press releases and pictures of kids sync-jumping for joy grasping their A Level results papers always left me feeling uncomfortable – and even slightly angry. (Actually it tends to be sync-jumping and tossing mortar boards for degrees, but sync-smirking and paper waving for A levels.)

The template was always the same – in secular journalism you had to sort the results to show the top 10 local schools and the top ten brightest kids, and in Catholic journalism the subscript was invariably why Catholic schools are self-evidently far better than all the others. Any break-ins to Oxbridge always merited special attention, as did ‘straight As’ and anyone with more than three A level passes.

Once heads and governors had analysed their results there would come the inevitable press statements about improved school performance and table rankings, and of course government ministers, legislators and the media would then have their say about whether or not our children were brighter or dumber than the last generation, whether or not teachers were doing a proper job, and the education system was either being underfunded of completely mis-funded.

For most journalists it’s one of the most turgid weeks of the year; for me it remains a time of turbulent memories of my own lack of school results and how such things first sought to convince me that some of us were cut out for great things, and some just weren’t.

As it happened, I really enjoyed my school years and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my Catholic grammar school and several Presentation brothers in particular who encouraged my early obsession with writing and photography. I suppose failing my 11-Plus should have been an amber warning, but by the time I hit the O’level exams I was still pretty convinced I was going to be the next Don McCullin or Patrick Kavanagh.

Two stiff yellow sheets of paper emblazoned with the crest of Oxford University Exam board – and very little else – told me and everyone around me that I had been kidding myself. Teachers and other peers expressed their disappointment and bewilderment, and there was a lot of intimations about how I hadn’t done the work needed, though no-one thought to mention that maybe some others hadn’t done their job either. (It’s a strange thing that teaching is one of the few professions where the customer is always held to be at fault if things break down.)

That’s why I can never get through school results weeks without thinking of doors closing, rather than doors that have opened. Sure, good luck and every best wish to those few academically empathetic youngsters who have been able to memorise, analyse and regurgitate so many things that will never be used again but, for most, results day is one of the most traumatic events in a lifetime. Exam results are the first real hard token of failure, where the reality of the primal world beyond school breaks in and attempts to define, or worse, restrict expectations and achievements for decades ahead.

What makes this test of human worth so unfair is not only that it favours those who can absorb and replicate information largely uncritically, it also takes years of effort and learning and condenses the entire worth of a child into a two or three hour performance that can potentially determine the course of their entire life. It’s an outdated and brutally blunt assessment mechanism that can wreck the future of even the brightest academic, never mind those whose imagination and creativity is focussed elsewhere. It’s also equally unfair on schools and teachers, as the worth of an educational establishment is measured primarily on exam test results rather than positive pupil outcomes.

I won’t bother detailing them here, but if you look at the many statistics, media articles and comments from legislators and educational experts today, you can sense the corporate sigh of relief that the dreadful uncertainties caused to educational performance by the pandemic have gone, and we can now all head back to chatting the old chat about results, grades, university places won and where the brightest and best are going to go.

It’s estimated that some 425,000 students secured university places this year – the second highest number on record. The rest, presumably, have been sent off to join the heaving ranks of lost and confused.

In an attempt to show some cognisance that exams and traditional academic subjects don’t suit everyone, this year has also seen the first T-Level results. T-Levels are the government’s flagship new post-16 practically-oriented qualifications, designed to be the technical equivalent to A-levels. The two-year courses launched for the first time in September 2020 in three subjects: education and childcare; design, surveying and planning for construction; and digital production, design and development. And there are plans to expand the subject range in the years ahead, though of course the emphasise remains on prepping students up for the workplace and taxation value, rather than personal development and potential contribution to the common good.

(And of course let’s not forget the fiscal value of onerous university student loans and other contributions to the public purse.)

Just last week Rushi Sunak vowed that if he becomes Prime Minister he will “crack down” on university degrees that don’t improve a student’s “earning potential”.

Mr Sunak – who was privately schooled in the £45,934-a-year Winchester College, graduated from Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford – claimed predictably that “A good education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better.”

His leadership opponent Liz Truss –  a Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduate from Oxford’s Merton College – shares very similar views, as no doubt would most members of the Tory party. If the current education system has benefited you in an outstanding manner, you’re bound to champion it.

The debate, though, is more about what we consider to be ‘a good education, ‘a better life’ and ‘success’.

A few years ago Pope Francis was receiving members of the International Federation of Catholic Universities in Rome and he gave the fairly expected address about the importance of the human person in education. Then, in typically Pope Francis fashion, he pulled out a personal observation: We need to remember that all teaching “entails asking ourselves about the why”, he said.

“It requires a reflection on the foundations and purposes of every discipline … the fruits of study must always have “a relational and social purpose.”

The Holy Father’s remarks put me in mind of Cardinal John Henry Newman:

“If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society… It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.” ― John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University

Both Pope Francis’ raising the “why” of education, and Newman’s plea for the training “of  good members of society” makes the point that our Catholic Church’s view of education runs very contrary to the modern British notion of education as primarily a means of accessing money, privilege and material success and the false assumption that highly-qualified earners equals a happy and useful society.

If one looks at the current outcomes from a university education in particular, it’s evident that the biggest benefactors are not by any means the most socially useful, in fact – with the exception of medicine – you could well argue the reverse. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency figures published this week , post university careers in economics and finance deliver the greatest increase in lifetime incomes, whilst social care, nursing and agriculture create the least improvement.

Whilst this will surprise no-one, a world with financiers and economists at the top and nurses and farmers at the bottom is not a particularly good place to be.

It also won’t surprise anyone that today’s exam results confirm the longstanding trend that private fee-paying schools have outperformed all others with their results. The tumbling percentage of A*/A A-level graph – descending from Independent at the top, through Secondary selective, Academy, Sixth form, Secondary comprehensive, Tertiary college and with Further education establishment at the bottom – is a vivid descriptor of a country still riven by class differences and lack of opportunity for many.

In an address to the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2020, Pope Francis called on all those “who have political, administrative, religious and educational responsibilities to rebuild the ‘village of education’.” Sadly, it seems like there’s like there will be little political appetite for this in the years ahead from UK politicians or secular education leaders who have benefitted so significantly from the present educational mechanisms.

If there is hope for a better approach to education in the future, it will have to come from those brave young people who are today committing themselves to years of further hard study and very significant personal debt as they head off in the Autumn to university. In their hands rests the hope of building a better, more just, balanced and peaceful society.

And for those who might be led to think they are confronting failure today, don’t be downcast. If you have a dream it’s there to be got, just believe in the purpose God has revealed to you and go for it! After my dismal failings at O’Level, I went on as an adult to study at Oxford University, gained an MA in Religions and Theology at Manchester University, and have enjoyed 30 high profile years in national journalism.

The twilight is beckoning now, but I’m still hopeful that God may even guide me to a PhD before my course is run!

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and publisher, and founder of