Words by Luke Alland.
It's a strange time of year for a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds. They stand at a crossroads, completely at the mercy of the examiners. Going to university is one of the most life-defining decisions. Not necessarily because of the course you take, nor the actual university you decide to study at, but rather the people and journeys you will invariably find yourself exposed to.
The majority of people reading this article are past the A-level results stage of their life (one presumes...). You have already gone through the stress over grades and the turmoil surrounding which university will give you a place. I was in the last cohort of kids that were allowed to leave school at age 16, and there have been many times I've seriously questioned my choices. However, over a decade on, I don't think I would've had it any other way.
The school I completed my GCSEs at was issued with an improvement notice by Ofsted following an inspection in my penultimate year. It gave us the lowest possible rating of 4 (basically inadequate) and only 28% of GCSE students achieved five A*-C grades including English and Maths. I was grateful for a fresh start at a new school with better facilities and the opportunity to study music and music tech (my passions at the time). I also opted for philosophy—a decision which still fucking baffles me to this day.
When I started at Sixth Form, I was working at Halford's part-time, fitting light bulbs, car batteries and fixing up motors, before I was legally allowed to learn to drive. I thought my £4.90 hourly wage at the time made me a high roller, and the possibility of being able to earn more money by not having to go to Sixth Form always appealed to me. That, and being able to go to band practise without worrying about studying or having to iron a shirt for the next day. Thankfully, with very understanding parents and a certain trust that I wouldn't bugger it up, I left within six weeks of starting.
I admit it, I have a certain chip on my shoulder about my background (although invariably some of it was my choice), and nearly always being the least educated in the room. I have felt the necessity to show I'm not a complete moron early doors when I meet someone new. The journey I took, whilst not always plain sailing, has stood me in better stead for the things I've somehow managed to achieve. It's strange to think that I am qualified to coach football (one of the many strange things I've done in my life) but hold no qualifications in speaking the two foreign languages that I am fluent in.
In a pre-Brexit Britain, I was afforded the opportunity to live abroad VISA-free. Whilst the majority of my friends left for various parts of the UK, with me left back in Penge, I thought I could maximise my time by leaving for pastures new. Germany awaited and I ended up staying for two years—much longer than I ever had planned or anticipated. The age-old adage of the University of Life is one that gets bandied about endlessly by baby boomers, and I do believe there is a syllabus. You've just got to be curious enough to seek it out. A year in Mexico City definitely rounded off my 'course', but an earthquake that forced a return to London meant that I had the opportunity to finally apply everything that I had learnt.
That being said, and whilst not really believing in higher education, I did start an Open University course living abroad. Now, looking back on it, it was almost certainly to gain the respect and kudos of my ex-fiancée's family. She was studying to be a Chemical Engineer and I thought (rightly or wrongly) the idea of a non-qualified potential husband wouldn't sit right with them. As I've gotten older, I've realised it was a huge mistake, and though I don't regret learning the things I did, my frustrations with the lack of applied knowledge that I gained doesn't sit well with me. Maybe that time could've been better spent? Who knows.
My route was a tad eccentric, but I've always felt there is far too much weight placed on the results that get handed out today, and every year I wish that someone would pull them aside to tell them it isn't the end of the world if they aren't happy with how the faceless judiciaries have deemed their work. I have many mates that have started uni at a later date, or have hustled their way through life with a tenacity I could only hope to emulate.
For some, going to university is the path that they need to take, and for years I struggled to accept that not everyone who goes to uni just had it easier than me. They worked for it, just in a different way. The worry I have, partly due to the enforced insulation wrapped around many of the leavers today, is that students may feel unable to leave school when I did, nor have the option to try something new living in the EU or further abroad. I had no clue or expectation that everything I'm doing now is what I would fall into until my mid-twenties, and that's with a copious amount of trial and error. I've gone from wanting to be a musician, a football coach, a player liaison officer, a speech and language therapist, a pilot, a teacher, all of which led to me being a photographer and writer. University shouldn't be a tick box exercise that everyone needs to complete; it should provide the concrete foundations, connections and—ideally—experience in what you'd actually want to do.
And given the excruciating amount of debt that students are forced into, you'd fucking hope so.