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Jim Dornan: 'I didn't get the grades to study medicine at first, but it's not where you start the race that counts, it's where you finish'

As local A-level students find out their fates today, Kerry McKittrick meets four high achievers for whom exam results were definitely not the yardstick for success

Top medic: Professor Jim Dornan relaxes at his home
Top medic: Professor Jim Dornan relaxes at his home
Lynda Bryans
Shrewd move: Greg Cowan with wife Yvonne

Professor Jim Dornan (67) is the Chair of Fetal Medicine at Queen's University, Belfast and a leading gynaecologist/obstetrician. He lives in Crawfordsburn with his wife Samina, and has three grown-up children, Jamie, Lisa and Jessica.

He says: "My mantra is that life is not a race to the far end. In 1966 I was hoping to go to Queen's to study medicine, but when the A-level results came out I didn't get the grades necessary for the course, so I missed my place at Queen's. I passed my exams, I just didn't get the top grades. It was such a long time ago and I can't exactly remember the grades, but I did get an offer from another university. I knew someone who'd gone to the same place and he'd left after first year. I thought I might end up leaving, too. So I decided not to go.

Instead, I stayed on for another year at Bangor Grammar School and repeated my A-levels, with the intention of getting into Queen's this time round. I have to say that was one of the best years of my life, that last year at grammar school. I got more involved with drama and rugby and even became a school prefect.

The second time round I did much better. I got the grades that I needed to go Queen's.

Staying on that extra year at school to repeat my A-levels was quite a big step to take back then, but I knew I had to buckle down and concentrate this time.

I didn't feel that I was being held back by staying on that extra year, even though many of my friends had all gone off to university. Meeting up with them years later, some had retired at 60, while others had retired at 70. One extra year at school makes no real difference in the end.

The way I see it is that it's not where you start the race, it's where you finish that counts."

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‘No exam could have taught me how to be in front of a camera for years’

Lynda Bryans (52) is married to former broadcaster and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt. She lectures at the Belfast Metropolitan College and is mum to PJ (19) and Christopher (17).

She says: "I went to a secondary school so doing A-levels wasn't an option at all. I didn't engage at school and didn't really understand the importance of education.

From there I went on to college to do a secretarial course. College was a wonderful experience for me. I became more independent and didn't have to wear a uniform. Looking back, I can see it was the making of me. I passed the whole course and started working as a copy typist at the BBC in Belfast.

From there I worked my way up and ended up presenting the news on UTV.

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of further education. Academia just isn't for everyone. I had a break in my career a few years ago and I went back to college and completed my HND in broadcast journalism. I now teach that very same HND and I teach the NCT newspaper journalism course at Belfast Metropolitan College, too. I'm still studying - I'm currently working towards a PGCE - a postgraduate certificate in education.

If you engage and are motivated in formal education then that's great, but for some people it doesn't work and that's fine. I was in front of a camera for years and no exam I know of could have taught me how to do that. For some jobs you really need A-levels and a degree such as law, medicine and architecture.

Having no A-levels has never held me back. I've never been turned down for jobs without them."

‘Failing first time around annoyed me and I wanted to prove that I could pass’

Donna Fleming (44) lives in Ballynahinch with her fiance Niall Toman. She has two sons, Scott (17) and Jack (16).

She says: "I did my A-levels at Rupert Stanley College as I had gone to a secondary school which didn't offer them.

I did art, maths and English, but ended up with two Grade Ds and a Grade E. My ambition was to be on stage in the West End and I had applied to performing arts schools in England, but with the grades I got, they wouldn't touch me.

I was totally demoralised at the time, but the reason I got such bad grades because I was too distracted by boys.

I thought I might as well give up on my dream and get a job in a shop, which I then did.

But I couldn't quite give up on performing.

I did a lot of work with the Ulster Theatre Company and it was the director, Michael Poyner, who encouraged me to try again.

Michael can be really encouraging and has helped other people like Belfast actors Rachel Tucker and Gerard McCarthy to get their start.

I auditioned to do a BTEC National Diploma in performing arts a couple of years later and in 1991 I opened my own musical company, Premier Musical People,

Then 15 years ago, I went back to Castlereagh College to repeat my maths and English A-level, and to do a GCSE in physiology.

The fact I failed those exams first time round always annoyed me and I wanted to go back and prove to myself that I could pass them."

  • Donna's Dolly Parton tribute show, The Dolly Show NI, will be on stage at the Linenfields Festival in Banbridge on Friday, August 21. Go to

'I left without qualifications, but to be honest it's never held me back'

Greg Cowan (55) lives in Belfast with his wife Yvonne. He is the managing director of painting and decorating firm McBurney & Cowan and is also the lead singer of Belfast punk band, The Outcasts.

He says: "There must be a lot of children who didn't do well in their A-levels who feel they've been put out on the scrap heap but being honest, it's never held me back.

I left school without any qualifications. I went to Methodist College and I didn't do my O-levels never mind A-levels because my academic progress was so bad. I left school and went straight into the family firm.

I started playing with The Outcasts and the band became successful, but I never left the company.

I think it was a shrewd move of my dad's to give us free time to tour with the band. Mind you, if we had a two-week tour around Europe, I was expected to be back at work the following Monday.

The Outcasts went on until 1984 and we started up again about five years ago. Throughout all that time, though, I have always worked for the decorating company.

Now there are 22 people working for me and I'm the managing director. I never did get any kind of formal qualifications to get to this position. I always say a lot of this business is working with people - if they don't like you they won't ask you back to work for them. I was always very lucky in that I've had a great financial director who deals with pricing and financial paperwork. At the moment it's my niece Anna and she's doing a wonderful job."

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