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Well-known Northern Ireland people who landed their dream jobs without top exam grades


Belfast Victoria College students celebrate their results in 2016
Belfast Victoria College students celebrate their results in 2016
Paul Reilly
Kieran Kennedy
Glyn Roberts
Kellie Armstrong
Leesa Harker
Rachael Bishop

By Leona O’Neill

What happens when your A-level results aren’t what you hoped for? Here, well-known faces who didn’t get what they wanted tell Leona O’Neill how they remained positive

‘My results weren’t the end of the world. I’m glad things worked out way they did’

Paul Reilly

UTV news reporter and presenter Paul Reilly (35) lives in Newtownards with his partner. The newsman says that his path to his career was not exactly conventional.

"I went to school in Glastry College on the Ards peninsula," he says. "I did a double award business A-level.

"I did okay. I got a C and a D. I probably could have done a lot more work. But they were still passes and they were enough to get me onto the next thing that I was signposted towards.

"I did a business diploma and a HND for two years. Then I did a top-up course to get me my business degree and I got a 2:1. I always look on education as each step leading on to the next.

"I have never been the most academic or an A* student, but I put the work in. I was sort of middle of the road and I always had a goal and knew what direction I was going in."

Paul says he had a clear ambition in mind, even from an early age.

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"I always knew that I wanted to read the news on TV, from the age of five," he says. "So I stayed in education and took whatever advice I could get. But I knew that I was going to need a degree at the end of the day so I just kept working away and doing my best and saw where it took me."

Paul says that he did not let his A-level results define him and ploughed ahead with his goal.

"My A-level results were not the end of the world," he says.

"They got me onto the next step. They were still passes and I still carry my certificate in my record of achievement, so I'm not too ashamed of it.

"I'm glad things have worked out how they have. I never really took a conventional pathway anyway to anything. I didn't do conventional A-levels, I didn't go straight into university.

"I just plotted my own path. I think as long as you put the work in you'll reap the benefits.

"I would say to those getting their A-level results today to take a breath. It's ok - whatever you've got, you've got, and you can't change it now. But it's all about what you do next. Think carefully about where you go now.

"At the end of the day, if you make a decision to go in one direction, you can always change your mind. You are not going to be tied down. You are still young and have your whole life ahead of you. Don't think you have to chart your destiny right now. Keep your mind open to other options, whether that is going to a regional college. You'll find something that suits you and as long as you put the work in, it will pay off.

"Grades will only get you in the door. They won't make a career."

‘Look at your options and try not to make rash decisions... you get out what you put in’

Kieran Kennedy

Kieran Kennedy (56) from Sion Mills is managing director of multi-million pound company O'Neills Irish International Sports. The father-of-three left school with no qualifications and now heads up the largest manufacturer of sportswear in Ireland. He says hard work and dedication get you far in life, not results.

"I left the Christian Brothers School in Omagh at 16, before I even did my GCSEs," he says.

"I don't have any formal qualifications at all, apart from a GCSE in Irish that I did 10 years ago. I wanted to be an electrician. I left school and after three weeks I got a job as a stock control clerk at O'Neills. I got the job and was paid £22 a week. There were only 30 people working there.

"In 1988 the manager left and I went for the job and got it. I was their general manager. I was made managing director in 1995. I have been here 40 years and we have 700 staff. We only had 30 staff when I started as general manager. I grew the business to what it is today.

"So for me qualifications were not the be-all and end-all. Hard work, commitment and common sense are the most important things to put you on a successful path.

"There are other routes to success, there are different journeys and it is not all about third-level qualifications. I always believe that if you work hard and are committed, you will do well. You only get out what you put in."

Kieran has this advice for young people getting their results today.

"I don't look back and regret my journey," he says. "I always felt that I was going to get back to the same goal anyway. Hard work was in my DNA.

"For those getting their results today I would say this - if the results are not what you expected, don't be disappointed. Look at the positives. Look at the different options and don't make any rash decisions. I have three children in my family. My daughter is going to do a PhD in pharmacy, I have a son who is a biopharmacist in Oxford and another daughter who just completed her law degree.

"They were all disappointed with their A-level results but we all sat down together and worked through it, and in the end, they are where they want to be. It always works out in the end."

‘Look at what an FE college can offer you... in many ways they are our unsung heroes of education system’

Glyn Roberts

Chief executive of Retail NI and east Belfast man Glyn Roberts (46) says A-levels are not the only option for young people and that there is a wealth of opportunities out there.

"I went to Orangefield Boys High School which is now sadly gone," he says.

"I got careers advice at 16 which was basically join the Army, go to the shipyard or join the YTP scheme. I wanted to go to university so I left and went to Castlereagh Further Education (FE) College, which is now Belfast Met, and I got two Bs and an A in politics, sociology and history A-levels. I went about it all by a different road and the biggest supporters I had were my parents. I felt and still feel angry about being written off at 16.

"I found the whole further education network really good. There were no limits to the way they would encourage you to achieve your best."

Glyn then took a year out to work for Help the Aged. He says the conventional route straight to university didn't suit him and would encourage others to think about their path also.

"I took a year out to go to work, which was really great," he says. "And then I started a politics degree at Ulster University at Jordanstown.

"I took the year out because I got advice that there were too many graduates that ended up with no work experience. I felt that I wanted to take a year out and work, and I think that perhaps gave me an extra edge that people who didn't do a year out didn't have.

"University isn't for everyone. I think A-levels aren't for everyone. One of the roles I had was chair of Colleges NI, which represents six of the FE colleges. They are doing some fantastic work on A-level equivalent level-three apprenticeships which lead on to loads of other opportunities. A-levels aren't the only show in town and I think that, while I'm not devaluing A-levels, we need to have other options there for the benefit of our economy."

He has this advice for those getting their results today.

"My advice to anyone getting results is to look at what your FE colleges are offering. If your A-level results aren't as good as you thought, there are other options. There are foundation degrees, there are other courses that you can do. There are always options.

"In many respects our six FE colleges are our unsung heroes in our economy and education system.

"Because they are taking people who might not have done well in our education system, finding what they are good at, shaping their potential and moving them forward. And that was my own experience all those years ago at the FE. It's all about realising your potential."

‘Turn your hand to whatever you are good at.. your life and career is not set in stone’

Kellie Armstrong

Kellie Armstrong (48), Alliance Party MLA for Strangford and mother-of-one, says that where you end up in your career is not dependent on today's results.

"I went to Assumption Grammar in Ballynahinch," she says. "I did geography, English, history and appreciation of art. I got a B in my Geography and a D in my English which was a big shock. I had got an A in my GCSE and it was a real kick to get a D. I still look back on it now and wonder what went wrong.

"But I got an A in my history and appreciation of art. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew that the A and the B would get me into Queen's University Belfast. I started off doing geography but hated it and switched over and became the one and only person in Northern Ireland studying Byzantine studies. I got my degree in that.

"I'm glad the way things worked out the way it did. It's been a very strange way to get to my career. I had wanted to do cartography, making maps, and then I was to do teaching at St Mary's and if I had gone down that path it might have been a very different life for me. I've done everything from selling advertising on a radio station to working with minibuses and community transport and now I'm a politician."

Kellie says your life and career are not set in stone, and has urged students not to panic today.

"I would say to the young people getting their results today to turn their hand to whatever you're good at," she says.

"Whether your exam results are good or they are bad it makes no difference. In 10 or 20 years' time you will look back and say 'that was school, it was a good thing' but where you end up is not just dependent on exam results today."

‘I took the scenic route to my dream job... if you want something, you’ll get there’

Leesa Harker

North Belfast writer Leesa Harker says she gave up on education at a young age, became hugely successful in her Maggie Muff books, and then went back to school. The mother-of-two says she got her education in a "roundabout way" and that people are more than a mark on a piece of paper.

"I left Belfast Model School for Girls at 16 and started a college course which I did one day a week while I was working," she says. "I did very well in my GCSEs but I just couldn't wait to get out. I just wanted to work.

"So I did this college course which allowed me to work four days a week. My job was in a builder's yard in the accounts department. I got £49 a week. I stopped going to the college and they offered me a full-time job.

"By the time I was 19 I was working in car showroom on £20,000 and a company car, which was loads back then. I just went from job to job and getting better jobs and by the time I was 22 I was a bank manager in England, running a £10m branch in Birmingham city centre. But I always wanted to be a writer. I went in a roundabout way to it. I left school early, I did all these jobs and then I went back and studied with the Open University when I was older to do an English degree with creative writing and had plans to do teaching. I wrote my Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue while doing all of that and it took off. And now I'm starting a Masters in creative writing at Queen's in September. So I got the education eventually."

Leesa says that everyone getting results today should "take it with a pinch of salt".

"There are different ways to do things," she says. "It's terrible when kids think that it's the end of the line if they don't get the results. But it's absolutely not.

"Anybody can do anything, you just need to go about it in a different way. Take the scenic route to where your dreams are, like I did.

"I think that if you have something in your head, and you want it, you'll get there. There are different roads.

"I would say to those getting their results today to take it with a pinch of salt. If you get what you're after, all good. If you don't get what you're after it is not the end of the world.

"Sometimes things happen that you think are awful but actually, when you look back, are probably the best thing because it opens up a door somewhere else.

"You are more than a mark on a piece of paper."

‘I was broken-hearted when plans didn’t work out but a door opened to career I love’

Rachael Bishop

Rachael Bishop (43) is a communications consultant at Harriott Communications in Belfast. The mother-of-two says a disappointing result in her A-levels set her on the path to a hugely successful career that she adores.

"I went to St Louise's Comprehensive College on the Falls Road," she says. "I did history, theatre studies and media studies. I got two As and a D - the D was in history. With my As in media and theatre studies I was over the moon. I was really disappointed in my history result. My teacher said that there was no way I was a D candidate. But the second paper just threw me. It was on a subject I hadn't studied and I couldn't answer the second question. When I came out of the exam I felt ill. I knew I hadn't done well.

"Up until that point in my education I had wanted to go on to study theatre. Even though I got my grade A, when I was going for auditions I wasn't getting through and not being offered a place in drama school. So I was at a crossroads. I was broken hearted and I didn't know what to do. Then my teacher gave me a leaflet about public relations at Leeds Trinity and All Saints University.

"So I went there and did a communication and cultural studies degree and I loved it. It set me on the path to where I am now. And I got there because theatre and history didn't work out.

"I have been in public relations now for 20 years and I've come full circle. I'm doing a lot of work with the Lyric Theatre and cultural and arts organisations. I'm glad that things have worked out this way. I love what I do for a living. It has taken me to many different places, allowed me to meet so many different people and to learn and grow. I am very blessed and grateful and thankful for that moment when I was standing at a crossroads, unsure of what to do."

Rachael says that those expecting A-level results today should realise that things will work out.

"There are so many different ways of doing what you want to do. And even though it might not be what you first thought, have an open mind and think about all the skills that you have. Don't fret. Other doors will open."

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