Back in the 1990s, I got a two E offer to study history at University College London, and I have always felt grateful for it. Following the current debate about unconditional offers, however, I am starting to wonder if I have been thinking straight. When I got my offer letter (no emails in those days), it came with an accompanying blurb the gist of which was that they would be disappointed if I actually got two Es but wanted to give me the security of a definite university place. That was all OK. I had no intention of getting two Es. I was doing A levels I cared about and wanted to excel in, but I was also doing economics. The economics department at my school wasn’t sparkling, and I had never really enjoyed the lessons. If I am being honest my first thought on reading my offer letter was ‘Bye, bye economics’. From that day forwards, I pretty much ceased to make any effort at all in economics. When it came to my A level examination, I put ‘b’ for everything on the multiple choice paper and made a vague stab at the essay questions. And, on results day, I was not surprised to find out that my final grade was an E. At the time, I was largely unbothered by this. Unlike lots of my friends, I hadn’t been stressed about getting into my first choice of university; that was all but guaranteed. I had done lots of additional reading for history, during the time I might otherwise have been studying for economics, and considered this time well spent. And I didn’t care enough about economics for its own sake to be upset by the E grade.
I was wrong, of course. Effectively giving up on economics in Year 13 limited the breadth of my education. Furthermore, universities are not the only people who care about A level results – I have been asked at more than one job interview why I got an E in economics when I was clearly capable of better than that. I tell the truth but it doesn’t make for a great answer. I always wanted to be a teacher, which is perhaps as well because my E would have ruled out of certain companies and careers. Yes, the two E offer did take some of the pressure off me in my final year of A levels but I would hardly have crumpled under the need to get a B or C. (An A, I think, would have been beyond my reach.)
When I arrived at UCL, I learned that my story was hardly unique. Several of my comrades in the history department had also messed up at least one of their A levels, safe in the knowledge that it did not really matter. This is all very anecdotal but it highlights some of the negative consequences of unconditional offers. For me, a two E offer was a safety net too far. An incentive to try harder would not have been a bad thing. Along with a love of knowledge for its own sake, that’s what I want for all my students – an incentive to work to their full capacity and achieve the best results they possibly can.