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What you can learn from our A-level results

It’s results day and teenagers all over Northern Ireland are waiting with bated breath to hear how they did in their AS and A-levels, hoping for the grades they need for uni, writes Kerry McKittrick

Published 18/08/2016

Good result: Pupils at Victoria College celebrate results
Good result: Pupils at Victoria College celebrate results
Dan Gordon
Niamh Perry
Sandra Overend
Kirsty McMurray

It's often said that the A-level exams are the hardest any of us will ever take. For some, success will mean a clear path to a chosen profession - medicine, law, dentistry, teaching, accountancy. For others, gaining a much-coveted university place will help them determine a future career.

For those disappointed with their results, the choices of the university clearing process or even repeating exams could beckon.

We talked to a selection of local personalities about their A-Level results and how they shaped, or did not shape, the rest of their lives.

Claire Hanna (36) is SDLP MLA for South Belfast. She lives in the city with her husband Donal Lyons and their children Eimear (4) and Aideen (2). She says:

I can't actually remember the exact grades I got at A-level, but I think they were B,C,D in English Literature, French and Irish. I got all As at GCSE, but by the time I got to 17 I had lost focus and I thought I knew everything anyway.

I had no intention of going to university and hadn't applied to any. I was working in a restaurant and doing bits and pieces of travelling, and it just felt like university wasn't for me - there was nothing that grabbed me academically.

Despite that, I later enrolled at the Open University in my mid-20s to do a degree in international development, going on to get a master's degree in law and governance from Queen's a couple of years ago. I got more from my university studies later in life, although I didn't have the university experience that I would have had I gone immediately after leaving school.

I moved out of my parents' home as soon as I finished my A-levels, though, and I think that's one reason I have such a good relationship with them now.

While I lived in shared houses and socialised with my student friends I didn't go on any five-days benders.

Instead I travelled a lot and even did some work abroad, which led to a 10-year career in international development.

Looking back I was working full-time, had my children and was a councillor - all while having to struggle with essay deadlines, which was hard.

Sometimes I wondered why I didn't get it over with when I was a teenager. But with experience I was able to tailor my education to the things I was interested in and at a time when I was keen to learn.

For those getting their results today my advice is - don't worry if it doesn't work out because it really isn't the end of the world. Start volunteering and find something that you love to do and make yourself indispensable at it until someone will pay you to do what you love.

Kirsty McMurray (43) is a radio presenter on Downtown Radio and Downtown Country. She lives in Bangor with her fiance Andy Brisbane and her children Katy (17) and Conor (16). She says:

My A-levels were in geography, history and RE, purely because they were the only GCSE subjects that I got high enough grades in. I wanted to do science, but my mum made me do the general science GCSE instead of the three sciences. As I didn't really like any of my A-level subjects, I ended up getting two Ds and an E.

I could have got better grades, but there's a story there. Having decided to be a teacher I went for an interview at Stranmillis Teacher Training College at the start of upper sixth. They made me feel so small and so stupid.

I walked away thinking that I didn't want to go there or be a teacher, so I basically just gave up. I did no revision whatsoever and I had no idea what I wanted to do next.

My mum made me go to college for a year and I ended up with a private secretary certificate.

Had I the chance to do it again, I would choose different GSCE subjects - ones that I was actually interested in.

When it came to my kids choosing subjects I made sure they kept their options open, and Conor gets his AS level results today.

Before my current job I plodded along doing whatever job came my way and have been a cook, worked in a bank and care homes and was even a lorry driver for a while. These occupations may not sound like much, but they're the jobs that led me to where I am today.

Kellie Armstrong (45) is an Alliance Party MLA for Strangford. She is married to Barry and they have one daughter, Sophia (13). She says:

I recall having to wait for my A-level results arriving in the post as I lived too far away from the school to go and collect them. My results would determine whether I would secure a place at Queen's University which I had set my heart on since I was five.

My grades were an A,B and D, which while disappointing were just enough to get me in. My subjects where history of art, geography and English, and I had intended to do a degree in geography. However, I ended up doing one in Byzantine Studies because I enjoyed it so much. When I was at school, it was usual to do O-levels followed by A-levels and then university. I started out doing four A-Levels, but then I dropped art because it took up too much time.

There's a lot of pressure on kids now, and they can choose subjects which are more career-oriented instead of more niche subjects, like history of art.

Dan Gordon (46) is an actor and playwright. He lives in Belfast with his wife Kathy and their daughters Sarah (26), Hannah (23) and Martha (17) . He says:

I started out doing four A-levels - English literature, biology, geography and RE - but ended up dropping one. My results were a B and two Cs, and it was enough to get me into Stranmillis for teacher training.

There were 12 students in my class and only two were men as teaching struggles to get men in. I would do the same thing again, but I wouldn't get away with it nowadays - kids are slaughtered with studies these days. My youngest is about to get her results and hopefully will have a place in nursing at Queen's. It's so difficult to get anywhere now and A-Levels are really hard. In university you turn essays in at your own pace and don't have to cram.

Kids can have another go if they don't do so well and there's also the BTEC system, which is where I think I would have ended up had it been an option.

Pete Snodden (35) is a DJ with Cool FM and met his wife Julia, a classroom assistant, when they were both studying at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. They have two daughters, Ivana (6) and Eleyna (18 months). He says:

I studied economics, technology and geography, and I ended up with a B and two Ds. I was really disappointed with that, but it got me onto an architecture course at university that I thought I wanted to do. But it didn't take long for me to realise that I absolutely hated it.

Because I was good at technology I chose to study architecture, despite the fact I wanted to be a radio presenter. At school I was too scared to admit what I really wanted to do. To be honest, I spent more time worrying about hockey in sixth form than I did about my school work.

After my first year of university I changed to a business degree and really enjoyed that, coming out with a 2:1. It's a hard decision to choose A-level subjects as a teenager as they tend to dictate your university course.

Sandra Overend (43) is an Ulster Unionist MLA for Mid-Ulster. She lives in Bellaghy with her husband Nigel and three children, Courtney (13), Joshua (13) and Nathan (11). She says:

My A-level results weren't great. I got a C, a D and an E, and that meant I didn't get into the exact course in business and accounts that I wanted to.

I'm a home bird and didn't want to leave Northern Ireland, so I went to Magee College in Londonderry to complete a higher education diploma in accountancy. The two-year course allowed me to go straight into the second year of a business studies degree, which was a wider focus for me.

I think we need to show young people there are options. When I was at school A-levels were seen as the route to university, and that was it. But they are not the only option available though, and that's something we need to fix.

We need better careers advice which shows young people that university won't necessarily provide the training they need to succeed in life.

Emma Heatherington (40) is an author and playwright. She lives in Donaghmore with her partner Jim and her children Jordyn (20), Jade (15), Adam (14) and Sonny (1). She says:

It doesn't seem like that long ago, but remembering getting my A-Level results still haunts me. I studied French, history and accounts, ending up with an A and two Bs, which I was very pleasantly surprised with.

I needed three Bs to get onto my course - communications, advertising and marketing at Jordanstown. It was the fifth year of the course. Now, I think now you need three As because it's become so popular.

I crammed so much for A-levels that I couldn't tell you anything about the subjects now. While everything turned out well for me, I have a recurring dream about my A-Levels. I'm back at school doing the exams and I realise halfway through that I've done all this before. I end up in a panic trying to tell the teacher that I don't need to be there.

Your A-Levels are the hardest exams you'll ever do as once you go on to university everything is broken down for you a lot more.

Niamh Perry (26) is a West End musical star who found fame after appearing on the BBC talent show I'd Do Anything. She is originally from Bangor but now lives in London. She says:

I missed six months of school in my final year because I was taking part in the TV show I'd Do Anything. I was kicked off the show on the Saturday and did my first A-Level the following Wednesday with almost no revision. Had I stayed on the programme I would've missed my A-levels altogether.

My grades were a B, B and C in music, drama and sociology. Although I worked hard at school my grades weren't as good as had been predicted.

When I left school I went straight into work, thanks to the TV show, although I had originally planned to go to drama school or do teaching while I waited for a place.

For those who don't get the grades they want today my advice is that most things in life are fixable.

There's always a way of resitting exams, taking another path or just trying harder next time. There's undue pressure on kids these days and I can remember this the whole way back to my 11-Plus.

GSCEs and A-levels were a stressful time. I didn't put in as much work as I could have, but I didn't go down a conventional route. There's always a plan B.

Belfast Telegraph

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