This is the age of educational anxiety

But good grades don’t always make great workers.

Education has never been so stressful. A-level results were published this past week, the culmination of years of collective anxiety by pupils, parents and teachers. Like Christmas, exam stress begins earlier every year. Once confined to the summer term, it now creeps into the whole academic year, not just as a result of coursework but because exam results have never been more crucial. As the universities minister, David Willetts, pointed out, too many employers don’t even consider candidates without a 2.1 degree or better. Attainment is increasingly portrayed as a ladder to the top in which one missed step dooms the whole ascent.
I am almost the only member of my family who is not a teacher. My parents were teachers, as were my grandmother and my uncle and aunt; both my grandfathers were stateschool head teachers. Perhaps by genetic predestination, I married a teacher. My family’s experience confirms the general trend: more exams, more anxiety about exams and deepening concern among parents that their children cannot afford to fall short, that opportunities narrow early and decisively.
It is easy to bemoan pushy parents, private tutors, overanxious pupils and teachers who teach to the test. We have all encountered parents who view their child’s education as a kind of reverse teleology, beginning with the “right” kind of top job, working backwards through elite university, through school, even into the nursery playground. I suspect that their neurosis often does more harm than good in the long term.
But their competitive angst is also understandable. The age of educational anxiety is the inevitable conclusion of two questionable (though rarely questioned) assumptions: first, that grades reflect merit, and second, that academic attainment is what makes people successful in the workplace.
Almost everyone in education today agrees that the never-ending steeplechase of examinations and assessment has become damagingly stressful. But that will never change; indeed, it will increase indefinitely, unless employers change the way they make appointments. The question “How do people get good jobs?” is the first domino. That causes a cascade of assumptions that ends in the parental conviction: “My child has to get these results.”
Much more revealing than this summer’s exam results was a telling confession by one of the world’s best-known employers. In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, senior vice-president of people operations at Google, gave a candid assessment of his firm’s track record at predicting who would turn out to be a good employee. “We did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring,” Bock said. “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess.”
Bock’s testimony is unusually valuable because Google collects and analyses a huge quantity of information from employees. “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPAs [the American equivalent of degree classes] are worthless as criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless – no correlation at all,” he said. “Your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed in college.”
Bock went further, arguing that there may be an inverse correlation between formal education and original thought. “I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are . . . conditioned to succeed in that environment . . . You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”
Everyone has heard the roll-call of big-name businessmen who failed in formal education: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson. Google is trying to widen the net to catch some of that talent. “The proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well,” Bock explained. “We have teams where 14 per cent never went to college.”
They would doubtless bridle at the idea of literature as “problem-solving” but Bock’s point applies to writers as well as entrepreneurs. Evelyn Waugh was awarded a Third at Oxford and didn’t even bother to collect it. Cyril Connolly was also placed in the third class. John Betjeman didn’t even do that well – he was given a “pass”, a meagre improvement on a straight fail.
But faith in exam results shows no sign of loosening its grip. That is partly because it suits the winners in today’s status quo. I’ve argued before that credentialism has turned full circle. Intended to be a progressive alternative to the old-boy network, credentialism now plays into the hands of people who have the energy and inside knowledge to navigate the system.
Given the lengths to which some parents will go in order to engineer superb grades for their children – private tutors, cramming, re-marks, resits – the correlation between exam results and ability is increasingly questionable. That is why we have all had the experience of meeting people with “good degrees” from “top universities” and wondering how it can have happened.
Credentialism is an easy position to defend, however. No one gets blamed for giving places at university to highly credentialled candidates who turn out to be spoon-fed. And those hiring at firms are unlikely to be blamed for appointing highly decorated graduates who turn out to be ineffectual employees. But setting out not to get blamed isn’t the same thing as making the best decision.
Each year’s set of results is greeted with a forensic analysis of standards, grades, places, rankings and prospects. If only we were equally rigorous about re-examining the dubious assumptions that underpin our obsession with academic attainment. 
John Betjeman at Somerset House in 1975. At Oxford, he just scraped through without failing. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Show Hide image

The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.