How and Why My Daughter Got 11 A Levels

This year, my daughter Libera 自在 Assini, got 11 A-Levels (8 A* and 3 As if you need to know).

This has created a bit of stir in the U.K. media and for a day her picture ornamented (she is rather pretty) many national and local newspapers.

In the commentaries, someone hailed her as a genius, someone worried if she had a life at all and if she had spent the last couple of years hidden in a cave going through all this knowledge.

Others declared that this is final proof that A-levels are a joke and that the country is going to the dogs.

So, having had the chance of observing Libera while she was preparing for her exams, I thought I would write a little note to clear up some misconceptions.

I am not writing this for the journalists, the commentators or the educational authorities.

Us old people are beyond salvation anyway, it would be just a waste of time, but I thought that it might be of interest to some of the kids still at school that are pondering how to deal with the Big A-levels Choice.

So how did Libera manage to get her 11 A-levels?

Let’s start by clearing the biggest misconception of all: my daughter is not a genius.

She has a sharp mind (and an even sharper tongue) and has been blessed with an excellent memory.

She is witty, humorous and when in the right mood, very funny.

But she is not a genius and she is perfectly fine with that.

There are certainly a few real geniuses among this year’s crop of secondary school leavers but they won’t be celebrated in the newspapers as most of them probably only got one A* or two in their favourite subjects and unremarkable grades in the rest.

Why? Because being a genius is largely about focus.

Geniuses tend to obsess about something, be that chess, maths, violin or ballet at the detriment of anything else.

Think Einstein, great at Physics, rather absent minded with respect to most other things.

If anything, the fact that Libera has passed with flying colours 11 exams in subjects that range from maths to the sciences, to the humanities and languages suggest that she is a well rounded person, and that’s almost the opposite of a genius (funnily enough, well rounded is one of the possible meanings of her Chinese name, 自在).

So if she is not a genius, how did she do it?

Did she start studying like crazy when she was 16 and never look back?

Not quite.

Libera is actually a very typical teenager, much more inclined to spend her time watching Strictly Come Dancing or bitching on Facebook that focusing on polar bonds or eigenvalues.

As any other card carrying member of the social media generation, she has the required 400+ virtual friends but she has also some real friends to go shopping, to the cinema and travel with when summer comes.

So she is quite normal and quite fine, really.

She is also a seasoned procrastinator so, as usual, she ended up doing most of her study in the few weeks before the starts of the exams.

However, when she finally sit down to study, she did it with unfaltering determination.

She would start early in the morning and keep on going almost without interruption till late in the evening and often well into the night.

I do not offer this as a good example, she definitely should have started studying much earlier and, if you are the well-organised kind, by all means do so.

If not, be ready for a really really tough last few weeks of study.

So is pure grit the answer? Just putting in the hours, burning the midnight oil?

Partially yes, but there is also another thing to consider.

In the U.K, you are used to choose a very limited number of subjects for your A-levels.

But this is not how it works in most of the world.

For example, in Germany, France or Italy, a secondary school student will study 10 subjects or more all along and will end up being assessed on most or all of them in their final exams.

Naturally, as they deal with more subjects, they will delve slightly less deeply into each of them.

Still, this proves that there is absolutely nothing special in juggling many different subjects.

If they can do it, so can you.

It’s well within your possibilities, no super human effort is required.

In conclusion, the recipe to get 11 A-levels is: 50% just showing up, 30% grit and 20% having a mind in good working order (if you are interested in experimenting with mind-altering substances you might want to leave this for the summer after your exams).

Having hopefully cleared up the question of how to do it, let’s briefly discuss why anyone should bother at all to study more than the customary four subjects.

Well, no reason really.

No good reason at least.

You have heard the advice: select the subjects that you like most and you are best at, and that are related to what you want to do later on.

Your A-levels will determine what subject you will be allowed to study at University and what kind of career you will have.

More importantly of all: focus focus focus.

Four subjects is plenty, just make sure that you are very good at them.

Universities don’t care about a wide range of A-levels.

If, say, you want to study Physics, they don’t give a toss if you hold a good A-level in French.

Employers also don’t care: why should a computer programmer know about Politics, or a bank clerk about English Literature?

How is that relevant? How is that useful? How am I going to make money out of it?

Concentrate on the limited, specific form of knowledge that is immediately and directly relevant for your further studies and your future career.

That’s all extremely reasonable and by all means follow the wise advice that these very serious people that have your best interests at heart offer you.

However, just for fun, let’s try to turn their advice on its head.

For a start, what about choosing a “useless” subject, something that you never plan on studying further or working with?

Incidentally, this is what lead Libera to include Physics and Chemistry in her A-levels.

She knew that she was not going to study a scientific subject at University and that’s precisely why she chose them, this was the last chance in her life to get some understanding of how the physical world actually works.

What is this knowledge good for, I hear you ask, if she is never going to use it?

Well, perhaps it will make her less likely to believe in the tooth fairy.

Maybe, when some well meaning Bible peddler will knock on her door to announce that “It’s all in the Holy Book!”, she will be able to gently but firmly explain that it is a tad more complicated than that.

Or possibly, when reflecting on some totally unrelated problem, in some totally different field, this background knowledge will somehow spring back and provide a different point of view, suggest an unexpected solution.

You never know, a seed has been sown, if the soil is fertile something will grow out of it.

But you can do even worse: what about an A-level in a subject that you absolutely hate?

This is not something that Libera really did (well, maybe Further Maths?) but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

Maybe you think of yourself as “not a maths person” or “not good at languages” or “not artistic”.

Are you sure?

And even if you are correct in your assessment, is it really a good idea, at the age of 16, to close yourself in the little box of the things-you-are-good-at, never to emerge from it for the rest of your life?

One of your arms is probably weaker and less able than the other, but you would not dream to cut it and throw it in the rubbish bin, so why would you do so with whole chunks of your mental abilities?

Have a go at studying something outside your comfort zone.

If you are successful, you will have learned that there are many potential skills and talents in you that, with some work, can be brought to light.

A better understanding of your potential might also extend to other areas of your life making you more flexible and experimental in choosing your job, where to live or what people to hang out with.

For sure, you will find that being more well rounded is quite enjoyable.

But a round is made of infinite sides.

If you have only four sides, or subjects, you will end up quadrangular and if you have only three it is geometrical that you will look quite triangular.

That’s not well rounded at all.

But what if you take on too much and end up failing spectacularly?

Well, think of it as a courageous middle finger raised against the educational establishment and their obsession with stars, the initial letters of the alphabet and their position in the bloody ranking tables.

Assume your failure as your “Punk moment”, a God given birthright in the U.K., and move on.

There is no shame in trying and failing, but there is always regret in not even trying.

To conclude, let me reveal you a dirty little secret.

Something that we adults rarely discuss and that your headteacher always failed to mention at assembly.

The main purpose of the educational process is not to teach you but to sort you, to put you in the right box.

It starts at primary school, when they split you in different groups of ability.

You are barely 6 or 7 and these busy bees are already at work, separating the wheat from the chaff.

They do it in the nicest possible way, praising and supporting you all along.

But they are also subtly “putting you in your place”, progressively limiting your options.

It goes on in a big way at secondary school, with the split between Grammars and comprehensives.

And it’s perfected with the selection of GCSEs and A-levels that are “suitable” for you.

It’s like cooking frogs, you put them in cold water and turn a little fire on.

They are smothered so gently that they die without ever realising what happened to them (luckily that’s not literally true, the frog will eventually jump out of the boiling pot and so can you).

The process is complete when they have put a nice label on your head that reads: plumber, manual worker, clerk, soldier, manager.

Obviously, we all need to have a job and it has to be something that we are comfortable doing.

But you should never forget that you are not a clerk, a manager or a plumber.

This is what you do for a living.

What you are is a human being, a versatile creature that can engage in an infinite variety of activities, manual and intellectual, and derive from them multiple and varied pleasures.

That’s why you want to study various subjects and try your hand at different crafts, sports and trades, no matter if you are good or bad at them.

It’s to remind yourself that you were not made to be just a cog in the machine, but a well rounded human being.

An ancient poet from my country said it best: “Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.”

I won’t translate it, you are clever enough to find out what it means and perhaps read a few more verses of the same poem.

That’s enough bad advice for today, so I shall stop here.

Have a great summer kids!


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