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We’ve all seen this by now, yes? It shows the very different paths students take to reach their destinations and has all sorts of ramifications for those responsible for tracking data. Thank you, Education Datalab. Here’s a story about the road I travelled.

In Y10 I had the most spectacularly Monty Python-esque RE teacher. Mr Keen was his name. He looked like the grandfather of a Hunter S Thompson Jesus, clearly had not bought a new suit (nor shirt – that collar nearly reached his armpits) since 1975 and seemed to contain the energy of the entire school in his wiry frame. He was fantastic, and I’ve only recently realised how much of an effect he had on me. At a parents’ evening he told my dad that I should be going to university but that I shouldn’t really worry about what I wanted to study until Y13, and given that I didn’t know what I’d be studying in Y13 I should just carry on being interested in everything. My dad was delighted – no-one in our family of Dartmoor hill farmers had managed to stay in school past 15 – but did ask how the country would survive if everyone went to university. It didn’t make sense, he said: who would build the houses, transport the goods and grow the food? At the time I was faintly embarrassed.

In Y11 Mr Keen and I spoke about my grades. Tech was the only one where I wasn’t predicted an A and so we agreed that I’d make sure that I’d at least get a C. He told me, ‘Toby – you’re the sort of person we need running for Prime Minister. Don’t let your dislike of graphic design let you down. Go to university, study something brilliant and then use it to make the world a better place.’ I wonder if big DC has a GCSE in graphics?

At A level I studied Literature (which I dropped because I was fed up with the pretentious ramblings of my classmates who rationalised every line of every sentence, paragraph and stanza without ever considering, or appreciating, the art of the language as written or spoken aloud), music, theatre and history. Despite loving music and theatre the most it was history which really grabbed me, though quietly and stealthily, gently pulling me towards its labyrinths and hidden valleys. But study it further? Teach it? Nah.

Anyway. I didn’t really know what university was until I visited Cardiff  when I was 19. My friends and I all knew we should go, and we all had great A levels, and most of their parents had gone to uni (I guess they just assumed everything would fall into place) but mine hadn’t: I had no idea what a 2:1 was, I knew nothing about colleges and lectures and seminars and halls of residence. I was totally ignorant. All I wanted to do was to continue playing music (I was earning money playing and teaching), read great big Russian novels and travel the world. 

And so it came to that first post-school September and we all thought, oh yeah! What are we going to do after this year? We’re all having one of these ‘gap years’, right? Who’s coming to China? Who’s off to Colombia? I’m working for a bit – anyone fancy Thailand in February? I was teaching guitar, gigging twice a week and working variously as a gym attendant, cleaner and fencing contractor – so I’ll see you in January, yeah? Meet you by that big clock in Prague?

So we decided to finally apply. We sheepishly turned up at our sixth-form centre, apologised for not really taking their advice and offers of help seriously over the last two years, and made our applications. Amazingly, given the pressure of thinking ahead now put on our younger students, we all had offers for our first choices and accepted without even visiting the universities. 

A year later I turned up at Cardiff to study Philosophy and History, turning down the chance to study music and theatre because I worried that I’d lose my love of those subjects should they become too academic – oh, how times have changed! 

But I didn’t really enjoy it. Admittedly, I hadn’t written in a year and so my first year essays were, frankly, appalling. My handwriting was, unlike now, legible, but my thoughts were all over the shop. I didn’t do the reading, I stopped turning up to lectures, I focussed instead on the bands I was joining and forming: I didn’t know why I was there. The one time I felt like I was really getting into something was in a seminar discussing the significance of European exhibitions of the C19, but a comment I made was shot down by my Professor, a man who I’ve never forgiven for very nearly causing me to leave the whole course.

Philosophy seemed like a complete waste of time. Most seminars were spent listening to the self-righteous indulgences of what I thought of as bedroom-bound, WarQuest-playing loners with no appreciation for the complexities of the actual world and actual people, the sorts of students for whom the term ‘cry bullies’ has now been invented. Are these the sorts of people who are going to teach my children, I wondered; is this the next generation of human rights lawyers and politicians and doctors? What if one of them ends up as Prime Minister?

History wasn’t much better. Despite the entry requirement being minimum AAB nobody wanted to speak their mind at all, which always almost a relief from philosophy. Even when I had done the reading, which was more likely in history, there was rarely a conversation that didn’t revert to anachronisms and vague, half-finished opinions.

Increasingly I spent my time with architechts. They seemed to be a great bunch, interested in philosophy, history and theology, my third choice during that first year, alongside music and art and travel and people and sport and conservation and literature and cinema and everything else. Weirdly, I’d actually chosen that ill-fated graphics GCSE in Y9 because I had wanted to be an architect. In fact it was with an architect housemate that the whole idea of leaving university during that first year came up. We were persuaded, in the end, to stay by each other’s curiosity.

It wasn’t until the end of my second year that I really started to like history. I took a module on the art, music and poetry of WWI and ended up writing about TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. His was a fascinating life, a journey of absurdity and luck, of will and know-how and know-who; one that demonstrated the possibilities and potentialities of knowing a heck-load of stuff. I read everything about him and by him. And I regained my love of history.

In my third year I chose for my dissertation to study the cinema of Pedro Almodóvar as a mirror of, and driver for, the lessening machismo of post-Franco Spain. I taught myself to read Spanish, visited Madrid (my favourite Spanish city, despite many more beautiful, for its grandiose fakery), watched seemingly hundreds of films on giant screens in empty lecture theatres, and again read everything about and by the auteur from Extremadura. My tutor, the wonderful Dr Horsely, once remarked that my first and second year grades were really poor, and wanted to know what had happened? I couldn’t really explain it.

In June 2008 I stood at the door to the registration office for potential MA students and rejected offers to stay on from both History and Philosophy, where I’d bucked my ideas up. The reason? I needed to do something else for a bit and I’d always had a feeling that teaching must be a pretty great thing. After all, I had a lot to offer: keen historian, sportsman, musician, art lover, poetry enthusiast – why wouldn’t I be a great teacher? My tutors agreed but gave me words of warning. Teaching, they said, will drain you. You’ve too much to offer academia. And you’ll find it incredibly frustrating. Rewarding, yes, but also frustrating.

Needless to say I rejected the MA and, again, applied at the last minute for a PGCE at Swansea. It also should go without saying that I have found these past seven years both incredibly frustrating but also rewarding. In fact, the more I’ve learned the more extreme those feelings have become. Just as really getting to know both Lawrence and Almodóvar made me want to know more, thinking and writing about both my own practice and the myriad of issues surrounding education have done the same: I suspect you feel that too.

I often tell my students that the more you learn the more you’ll want to learn, but that you have to put the work in first. After that, though you might be working harder, you’ll enjoy it more and the effort required will feel less. Well, that’s what happened to me. 

So is this a less travelled road, or just another variation? I expect it’s the latter, which gives rise to all sorts of questions about pathways and qualifications and timing, etc. But one thing it does show, I think, is that without a bit of effort, despite what Jeremy Clarkson might have to say, we’ll be found wanting without knowing what it is we really want.

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