Choices

When I look back at my lucky breaks in life, the biggest and luckiest was to go to a good secondary school. I’m not sure my mum would have agreed with the word lucky, as she lobbied hard to get me in there.

I have read biographies of achievers, and they make it clear that they wanted to better themselves from the get-go. But it was not so with me. I wanted to go to the local school. Mostly, I wanted to be with my mates. The school where I was offered a place was on the other side of the city, and I knew nobody. However over time, I not only survived, but thrived. As well as all the bits of paper I earned from this school, though, one of the big things it gave me was the confidence that I would succeed.

I once posted about my early involvement in politics (here), so much so that in my teens, and armed with the confidence I was gaining from school, I harboured desires to go in that direction myself. And if you want to become a lawmaker, what better way in than to study Law?

So, as I progressed through school, I always had this goal at the back of my mind. The problem was, how to best manouver myself into position. There was an A-level (age 18) qualification in Law, but it was very rare to find that course offered anywhere, and I would certainly need to move from the school I had been settled at for five years. Fortunately, universities realised that A-levels in Law were few and far between, and were quite open regarding the subjects they accepted. As long as the grades were there, the subject was less important.

I decided just to concentrated just on the subjects I was good at, Math (first) and Physics (second). Despite these subjects being very numerate, when the time came to apply for a university place, I could easily apply to study Law. And I trundled on to my exams.

Politics, though, also had a countering effect. One of my friends worked as something called an agent. It sounded like their job was interesting. They weren’t the front-man, but were paid organisers. I even apprenticed at being an agent myself – in a local election which we expected to lose heavily. The stakes weren’t high and it gave me a hands-on opportunity to learn the trade. While I had applied to study Law, it would not have been required if I took this avenue so my choice of Law as a university subject became less concrete, to the point where, just before my exams, I really wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to move forward.

I was still good at Math and Physics, and I started mulling over pursuing these subjects instead. Again, because I was good at them. Stick to what I knew!

I ummed and erred, becomming less and less sure that I wanted to follow a legal career, and eventually decided to switch subjects to one of those I already knew.

I also had my eye on what job I could possibly be qualified to do afterwards. I had little knowledge of IT, and thought that a degree in Math would qualify me for nothing more than becoming a Math teacher. Little did I know!

But this thinking drove me toward Physics, despite my Math being stronger. With hindsight, since I ended up in IT anyway, it wouldn’t have made much difference. I suspect I’d have found Math easier, but Physics was probably the more interesting course. Plus, Physics is considered to be a good general degree, by the end of the course, you haven’t narrowed your options down too much.

So, following through my logic, I switched courses from Law to Physics. Physics was a far less popular course than Law in any case – many universities had spare places on their Physics courses – so I also saw my entrance requirements fall away and had no problem getting in. Provided I could work the finances, there was a place for me. As it happened, I did well enough in the A-level exams that I would have been able to study Law in any case, but I did not know that at the time.

So, that is how I ended up reading Physics. My only other concern – that I dropped my best subject – turned out to be unfounded. One of my university’s main field of research was in solid-state electronics – semi-conductors. We did a first-year course in this area, during which I decided that I couldn’t stand it! (more wondeful foresight)

Fortunately for students who didn’t want to specialise in this field, the university offered a theoretical option, things like Quantum Physics and Astrophysics, which was far more to my taste and far more mathematical.

At that time, ironically, I didn’t really harbour any ambitions to work in IT. As it happened, the Physics degree got the first job (as a scientist). The experience I gained in that first job got me into IT, and from there I rose up the scale and worked for banks in both New York City and London as something called an architect – exactly the same as in buildings, but in software instead. And it is not over yet – I still develop products from the comfort of home, so I can’t complain.

Pre-ordained

Following on from my post about school the other day, I wanted to talk a bit about qualifications.

I got into high school based on an interview, not an exam. Furthermore, it was my parents who were interviewed – I mostly sat quietly in the corner. As a result of that, my first competitive exams were my ‘O’ (Ordinary) levels, aged sixteen. They’ve had a few names since, and different countries have different setups, but most every schoolchild sits some form of exam aged sixteen.

These exams were nerve-racking. With hindsight that’s because I didn’t know what to expect. So, I revised and revised, and in the end I got good grades, the exams were a lot easier than I thought they’d be. They were good enough to allow me to study for the next level.

The next level of study was ‘A’ (Advanced) levels. Maths and Physics. These were two-year courses, from sixteen to eighteen. In my case, I just carried on at school, although a lot of people went to specialist sixth-form colleges. These were the most difficult exams by far that I ever sat, in terms of both content and stakes. Plus, of course, at that age, there were external distractions such as girls and booze. These exams really made the difference between going on to university, and staying home and finding a job. In my day, B and C grades were good enough to get into all but the very best universities, onto all but the most popular courses, although nowadays children routinely need As and beyond. Does that mean that the university intake is better now? You decide!

On to university. At this point, exams stopped being competitive. Your grades would be mentioned in conjunction with the name of the university. If you got a first from Oxford, you were likely onto a winner. I was at the University of Wales – an okay reputation, probably one of the better places to be.

At university, there was only a limited trust of ‘A’ level grades. After the first year at university, we took another set of exams. These again were pass/fail – if you failed, you had the opportunity to resit, if you failed again you were out. I passed, but again knowing that failure meant being kicked out, was tough.

From that point, things got a little easier. It was pretty-much accepted that everybody would get a degree of some kind, the only thing up for grabs was the actual grade. There were exams at the end of the second year, their results counted towards the final result, but even if you scored 0% (I probably wasn’t far off that!) you would sit a third year. It’d be fair to say that my foot was off the gas that year! I think second year counted around 30% toward the final grade. Not enough to make the difference between a pass and a fail, but certainly enough to fine tune between grades.

A lot of my third year was spent in the library. I suppose I was lucky in that I was in a stable relationship this year – the previous year I’d been a bit messed up. I knew exactly how important my final exams were, didn’t see girlfriend for a month, and I was a model student. In the end, I scored very highly in the exams, but left with just a 2:1 degree. Disappointing in the context of the third-year exams but given my laxity in my second year, I couldn’t really complain.

For me, then, the world of academia was over. I had opportunities to stay on and do both a one-year master’s degree, or a three-year PhD, but I was fed up of having no money. With hindsight, I should probably have stayed on as long as possible, gathered as many letter after my name as I could, simply because university was a “time of life” thing. Having been there once, it never really felt appropriate to go back.

Finally, a word about some exams I didn’t take. In my final year, in particular, I worked with several people who subsequently earned PhDs. This was simply a case of staying power. After three yeas at university, I was ready to go out into the world, but they chose the other option and stuck around. Even after three years, a lot of people didn’t really know what they wanted to do in life, so staying on to earn a doctorate was a rational choice (although I myself chose to go into the science research industry). Many PhD students had worse degree grades than I eventually received, so this wasn’t an academic split. The same was true of post-doctorate students. I have a lot of respect for somebody who has earned a PhD, or even become a medical doctor, but the respect is because of the time they spent education, rather than any kind of inferiority complex.

High School

From one of the blogs I follow, I was led to the blog of somebody else – that’s the advantage of wordpress.com, you can go on a voyage of discovery if you so choose. She was talking about school, gave me the idea to post a bit about my high school days. I’ve posted a bit about schooldays a long time ago, here, but I wanted to flesh it out a bit.

For those of you with a keen eye for dates, I attended high school from 1979-86. Seven years was normal in the UK at that time, though you could quit after five. I was lucky enough to go to a prestigious school in the city where I lived. Only years later did I appreciate all the trouble my mum went to, to get me in there, which at the time I took for granted.

One of the first observations I have from there is that because it was a prestigious school, pupils were expected to do well. We sent some up to Oxbridge each year, so it was certainly the norm to progress, rather than the exception. Looking back, this is probably the strongest effect that the school had on me, it’s something I’ve carried through life.

The school was grammar – it selected its intake of 90 boys per year from across the city. Academically I was around the top quarter of pupils. Subjects like Art were counted as academic, so the tables got skewed – certainly if I’d had my way, art would most certainly not have been included! So I was off the pace a little bit – some kids effortlessly scored A’s in every subject – but I excelled in maths and physics in particular. In fact, they were my specialities when I went on to higher education.

I don’t really have any overriding impression of the teachers in general. Specific teachers, especially later on, were brilliant. Others were bastards. Exactly the mix I’ve since encountered in real-life.

I was one of those people who was passionate about sport, but not much good at it. I represented the school in niche sports such as baseball (a UK version of) and (field) hockey – not your typical British sports. The school played football, we were in a very football city, after all, and some former pupils went on to play professionally for local teams. There were attempts to play rugby, but never more than a sideline, and even when I was later immersed in the rugby-mad atmosphere of Cardiff, I had no interest. Because the school had such a long and proud sporty traditions, people who were in the sporty clique (and there were naturally sporty kids who tended to walk into the school team for any sport they chose) tended to receive preferential treatment over those of us who weren’t. Often in intangible ways – there might be rapport between a teacher and a sporty person, which was otherwise absent, for example. Small things, but enough to pick up on.

Rather than in sport, my biggest extra-curricular achievement was in quizzing. I captained the school’s team in the annual Library Quiz, aged about fourteen. Each library in the city held such a quiz in its catchment area, and we won ours. Prizes were presented at our beautiful Central Library in the city centre. I later got to know the place well, as I became a bookworm. It was the only time I ever really felt adulation related to education – from teachers at least, I’d been a part of something that helped raise the school’s profile (and in a good way 😊). Most pupils weren’t interested. But I was always good at General Knowledge, it is something I enjoy even now.

There were troubles as well. I was made to feel like I was a mass-murderer for some of the infractions, though looking back, I laugh because they were all trivial. No more than a school wanting to uphold certain traditional levels of discipline, in a changing world.

In fact, this desire on their part to have “old-fashioned discipline” drove a wedge between us. Plus, I was an “awkward” student. I happened to notice that the tuition I was receiving each week was below the government’s threshold for benefit, so started claiming it. That was unusual – most eighteen-year-olds weren’t so savvy – but it raised my head above the parapet. Teachers weren’t happy at the extra workload generated on my behalf – dealing with letters from the benefits agency which must’ve taken all of five minutes. Several times I received the comment, “you either want to be here as a full-time student, or not at all”. I had the law on my side, though, and in the end I received my benefit. In fairness to them, I used to push things too. We were obliged to do some form of sport right the way through – I told them that my “sport” was snooker, and I disappeared to the local (licensed) snooker hall every Wednesday afternoon!

As I got older, I could see the nonsense of it. Things “for the sake of”. Sometimes the school allowed people to stay and resit failed final exams (‘A’ levels), but they made it clear to me that if I failed, that was it and I would be looking for somewhere else to study. They needn’t have worried – I passed my ‘A’ levels and duly headed off to university a few months later. And I thrived at university – when I finally left, I had all sorts of offers to stay on, so I could fit in nicely, given the right surroundings.

Things soured sufficiently with the school that I never even attempted to keep in touch. Never bothered with “old boys” events. It’s difficult when you move to another city, anyway, and they gave me every impression that they were glad to see the back of me so I was never going to be pally, pally with the teachers. I do wonder about how some of my old schoolmates, and my old teachers, got on with the rest of their lives, though I’ve never seriously tried to track anybody down. I’m public enough on the internet, if any of them ever feel the need… I hope they all did well for themselves.