As thousands of students get their grades today, Lee Henry talks to seven well-known people about how their grades — or lack of them — shaped their futures.
Meteorologist and BBC Northern Ireland weather forecaster Angie Philips lives in south Belfast with her husband and three children. She says:
I did maths, physics and geography A-levels at the Sacred Heart of Mary in Holywood, which is now amalgamated as Our Lady and St Patrick’s School.
I didn’t do fantastically well but I chose those particular subjects because I wanted to work in weather.
I’ve racked my brains and I can’t actually remember my results — maybe because they weren’t so good and I’ve since blanked them from my memory — but I think possibly a C and a couple of Ds. There certainly weren’t any As or Bs, that’s for sure.
After my A-levels, I managed to get accepted into Queen’s University to study maths, but in the interim I had already been accepted into the Met Office. Maths wasn’t really my forte; I only chose to study that because of the meteorological side of it.
I left Queen’s after a year and went to the Met Office. Geography was more my subject. That’s where my interest in meteorology came from. I was always into plate tectonics, earthquakes and natural disasters. That all came from watching movies with my late father.
When I joined the Met Office, they sent me out courses and they trained me. I did an HSC in combined sciences at Reading College of Technology — maths, physics, statistics and a bit of computing — and that led me into forecasting.
There are different routes to get where you want to go.
People always tell you that you need your degree, that’s the only way, but I don’t agree with that.
I think everyone is different. Remember, some of the most successful people in our land have no qualifications at all.”
Entrepreneur Naomh McElhatton (36) lives in Belfast with her daughters Aoife-Lily (9) and Eilish (7). She says:
I went to the Rainey Endowed Grammar School in Magherafelt, a brilliant school, but I was not what you would call the typical conforming student. I was a rascal, to be honest. I had plenty of brain power but probably applied 40% effort. Not the ideal situation and I think my poor mother did the worrying for me.
Nevertheless, I selected theatre studies, art and psychology for my A-level subjects, though I already had two offers on the table from Trinity College, Dublin and the University of Ulster’s Art College, Belfast.
I didn’t do well. I got Cs and a D, but knowing that I had already got into Trinity put my mind at rest.
I do remember a friend of mine crying because she only got two As and a B. It was nerve-racking waiting to hear if she’d got through on clearing, which thankfully she did.
I knew at the time what I wanted to do. I only stayed in Trinity for one year, then moved to New York for the summer, then moved to London to study teaching at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. Everything I do now is based around training and educating others.
The way the world is evolving I would rather my daughters had proper real-life work experience than just years of theory. Job roles are evolving.
Most employers require different skills sets, especially as digital transformation develops.
Life is a journey and you can only live in the moment. My girls are both showing very different talents and capabilities, and when they get to A-level age, we’ll see what directions will suit them. I’ve lectured in various further education colleges and I have to say some of the HNC and HND courses are fabulous. A-levels are not the be all and end all.”
Journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty (56) lives in Belfast with his wife Maureen. He says:
I didn’t do A-levels. I reacted in my mid-teens to the relaxation of discipline in school by going a bit haywire. I discovered freedom and wanted more of it.
I took an unnecessary repeat year after O-levels, though I had six passes already. The school was not ambitious for me, beyond hopes that I might be a civil servant or a clerk in the Post Office.
Then I went to the College of Commerce to do an OND in business studies. I failed that but still got onto a journalist’s pre-entry certificate course, which got me a job at a newspaper.
That was during the worst of the Troubles, so I fled Belfast and spent the next 12 years traveling in India, Europe and North Africa, and living off the dole in England and back home.
I picked up the threads of a career in freelance journalism — the traveling provided me with material to get started — then broadcasting, and resumed education in my 40s, getting a Masters in Irish Studies.
I enrolled to do a PhD but threw that over and wrote a book instead, then more books. And then, when I was writer-in-residence at Queen’s University, I submitted the books for a PhD and now I am Dr O’Doherty, but with no A-levels or primary degree. I wish somebody had talked sense to me when I was 16, but I doubt if I would have listened.”
Founder of Good Vibrations record store and record label Terri Hooley (68) lives in Belfast. He says:
I didn’t do A-levels either. I was that thick at school that I wasn’t even asked to sit my 11-plus. I left when I was 15 and it was the best day of my life. I hated school with a passion. I was just so glad to get out of it. School days are supposed to be the best days of your life but not for me. All I did during my time there was sit in class looking out the window thinking about records. School was a torture that I thought would never end.
After I left, I met these older girls and they gave me the best education a boy could ever have. My reading and writing was atrocious — my writing is still atrocious — but they gave me a lot of classic books to read: John Steinbeck, JD Salinger, Jack Kerouac, the Beat Poets.
They took me to art galleries, poetry readings, gigs, classical concerts, and that was my education. They also taught me a few bad habits, mind, and I never went back to church again.
I went to Ashfield Boys’ High School on the Holywood Road in Belfast and we were factory fodder for the shipyards, the aircraft factory and the rope works.
My first job was in the printing department at City Hall, which was just beside the record department, and that was great.
I remember coming back to Belfast from a party in Lisburn once, seeing all the unhappy faces trudging off to work, and that’s when I decided not to go in.
My life hasn’t been boring. I am sorry that I didn’t get a proper education because I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but I was always after something alternative to our current system. I was never interested in making money, buying a house, security. I wanted to have fun, to rock and roll and not do anyone any harm. I didn’t do too badly at that.”
Paula McIntyre (49) is a food writer and broadcaster. She lives in Portstewart. She says:
I didn’t do well at my A-levels deliberately, almost, because I had already made up my mind what I was going to do with my life. I wanted to cook and going to university at that stage in my life wasn’t going to help.
I had applied to go to university to do hotel management, but then I saw a catering management course in Belfast’s College of Business Studies and that appealed to me. It was a two-year course, fully funded, and when I got accepted for it I didn’t really care about my A-levels.
I did really well in my mock A-levels and my parents were disappointed that I didn’t follow that up by passing all of my real A-level exams with flying colours — at the time, it was like a family tragedy — but actually the catering management course suited me perfectly.
We did placements and I ended up doing all of mine at the Ramore Restaurant and I learned so much there. It was just the best, an absolutely brilliant all-round course. Because my passion was food, they indulged me. I didn’t have to do any placements in the bar, so it worked out really well.
I then ended up getting a scholarship to attend university in America, out of the Belfast course, which meant that my parents didn’t have to pay for any of my education.
Looking back, though, I’m glad I did my A-levels because I scraped through my English exam, and obviously now I use English every day.
When things are meant for you, they will not pass you by. That’s what I think. Everything has a way of working out, somehow, and those things that can seem like a disaster at the time can actually put things into sharp focus going forward.”
Democratic Unionist Party MLA for Upper Bann Jonathan Buckley (26) lives in Portadown. He says:
I studied history, politics and business studies at A-level at Lurgan College and I got on quite well.
I got three As, but my career path up to that point was quite complex because I had done my GCSEs and had decided to go down a vocational route. I began an apprenticeship training to be an electrical engineer but I quickly realised that I wanted to pursue something a bit more academic, so I went back to school and took my A-levels a year later than everyone else.
I enjoyed A-levels because I got to focus on the subjects that I was interested in. I surprised myself with my results; I couldn’t believe it. It was the first year that students had started to receive their results online, but I decided that I would go into the school to collect my results. The teachers already knew the results and I remember meeting a couple of them in the corridor and they were all smiles. When I finally opened the envelope, it was just such a relief. I then got into Queens University to study history and politics. I think studying for A-levels can focus you. Obviously, working in politics is more of a vocation, a way of life — it’s either in you or it’s not — but I always look back on those A-level results as an eye-opener.
They made me realise that if I work hard at something, I can achieve it. That said, I have friends who have gone down both routes, either university or other skilled work, and both have been equally successful. So for the young people awaiting their results, it’s nice to get good results but there are lots of different channels to go down in life.”
Author Bernie McGill (50) lives in Portstewart with her husband Kevin and their two daughters. She says:
I studied English, French and geography at A-level, and I also took RSA stage three typewriting because, even then, I had notions of becoming a writer. I spent all my time poring over the set English texts, writing reams of notes, analysing the characters, writing essays, and very little time learning my French grammar or the economic factors that affected the Mezzogiorno region of southern Italy.
As a result, I did very well in English, and not so well in the other two. I was accepted into Queen’s to study English, with the offer of sitting an entrance exam in French, but by then I’d fallen out of love with the language, so when my adviser of studies suggested I take up Italian I thought — why not?
I went on to take my joint-honours degree in English and Italian and spent a year in Italy. I never made it to the Mezzogiorno, but something of my A-level geography studies must have stayed with me because I’ve always loved maps.
My new novel, The Watch House, is set on Rathlin in 1898, when one of Marconi’s Italian engineers arrives on the island to conduct early wireless experiments.
The whole way through the writing of it, I had an OS map of Rathlin pinned above my writing desk and I used it to follow my fictional characters’ progress across the island.
I also used as reference, copies of the hand-drawn maps that Marconi’s assistant, George Kemp, had made during his time there.
Maps are a form of translation in themselves: an invitation to amplify the miniature to the life-sized; for this symbol read ‘church’; for this one ‘gradient’; for this one ‘road’; for this one ‘water’. So I don’t think I’ve strayed all that far from what my interests were over 30 years ago when I sat my A-levels: writing, translation, map-making.”