The O level results are out (or the CIE or the GCSEs, the name keeps changing and I am obviously an old fogey now and can’t keep track), and with it its attendant despair and joy. It’s such a fraught process—you spend three years preparing for the exams, and about a month finally sitting them, and your collegiate future is largely dependent on how well you did on them. The O level is also the first huge examination that you attempt. Altogether a rather pressured environment. I sat the examination in the good old days when one took the usual eight or more ambitious nine subjects, and an A was an A and a B wasn’t the end of the world. Perhaps it was for more studious people than I, but I can safely report that neither I nor any of my friends were weeping into our pillows for any of the Bs we got.

It doesn’t seem quite fair that so much depends on one’s O level result, and because it does I suppose I can’t blame students and their parents for feeling so hysterical about them now. Adding to one’s stress is the proliferation of the wunderkinder—all the Ali Moeen Nawazish types who take every subject under the sun and cover themselves in academic glory, effectively thereby casting one’s six or seven As into a downcast modesty. Six As used to be an excellent result back in the day; colleges would whizz you in and sometimes you’d even get a scholarship for your A levels. Now it isn’t a big deal at all to get six As, now you have the A*, read as “A Star”. That’s an A plus. The logic for having this distinction in an A grade is sound: Cambridge or London board grade equivalence to local board standard disastrously disadvantages the former, which is very problematic for students wanting to go to medical school, for example. Having an A* means that one’s equivalence might be slightly improved, which is good news. In terms of a sense of achievement, I’m not so sure. Intuitively it seems snobbish for an A to now also have a value hierarchy; now it isn’t enough to just land an A. There is the A*, the high A, the perfect golden star grade that makes even an A, that otherwise pinnacle of achievement, feel like it’s not good enough. This isn’t hyperbole; there will always be students who will be genuinely despondent at their ordinary As.

Healthy competition is all very well, but our obsession with academic success seems to be overwhelming now. Parents wanting their child to get into particular schools are willing to send them to endless tuitions, smack them and subject them to years of intensive training so they can, at the age of four or six, pass that ever-important entrance exam. Some families never speak anything but English at home to improve their child’s chances of doing well. In my interaction with parents of eighth-graders poised to choose subjects for their O levels, their most pressing concerns were with the utility of the subjects being offered, and which one had the best reputation for getting As in. No prizes for guessing which subjects were at the bottom of that list—literature, Urdu, history, art; all the things that help make humans of us all. But you can’t guarantee an A in art or literature, even if you get tuition or practice a lot, and so most parents are wary of their children taking them as subjects. They are also skeptical about the use of them—in itself an indicator of how the dreary cycle perpetrates itself.

The entire point of an education is now it being a means to an end, and that end is making money. That’s all. That’s why we keep churning out six year olds who have various Microsoft certifications and the kids with their seventy A*s, but only a handful of debaters. Where are the artists, the poets, the scientists? Where are the astronaut wannabes, the veterinarians, the cartoonists? When we tell our children that their worth is only measured by their grades, we are setting up a value system that is simultaneously false and constraining. It limits a child’s natural aptitude to tell them if they love books they can always read in their spare time, but being a doctor is what is going to be really useful in life. Or if they are musical, or artistic, or love animals—those are all hobbies, but making a life and career should be based on something you have to do as opposed to something you want to. That makes all the difference in anyone’s life, and boys are particularly subjected to this duty-bound argument. Why on earth would you want to stunt your child like that? By forcing them to become mediocre accountants when they could have been amazing architects, just because one is afraid they won’t make enough money?

Academics as a parameter for personal accomplishment is problematic because it is misleading too. School, in a way, is a perfectly controlled environment. You study, you sit an exam, you are graded fairly and you get your report card. It’s a system that, once understood, can be made to work for you. But the real world isn’t like that. Sometimes you can have worked yourself thin and still not get the raise, or the credit. Life isn’t fair, and other people aren’t fair either, but you have to learn to take your knocks and disappointments and move on. Outside of an academic environment you need much more than book smarts, and by limiting your child to only academics you are automatically excluding them from other aspects of education that they need to be successful in the real world. You aren’t letting them experience the crushing disappointment of stumbling just before the finish line and one’s rival winning the race instead. You aren’t letting them experience the thrill of standing in a spotlight on a stage, the words flowing from them like a song, and that moment of brief terror when you forget the words, but ad-lib instead. There are so many things to be good at, so many reasons to be proud of your child.

Straight As are excellent and praiseworthy, but ideally not at the cost of everything else.