ANOTHER day, another tide of tears from pupils learning they haven’t been awarded the grades they hoped for. Predictably, results day in England and Wales has proved every bit as distressing and disappointing as Scotland’s was, raising yet more questions about what constitutes “fairness” in what has been a year of hardship and anxiety for everyone.

If anything, it seems as though Gavin Williamson’s “triple lock” solution will only add more stress and uncertainty on top, whereas John Swinney’s handbrake turn – as politically embarrassing as it might have been – at least provides certainty. In Scotland, downgraded marks are being restored. In England, downgraded pupils now face the prospect of having to prove themselves in autumn exams.

It’s far too early to say what the long-term impact of these policies will be. The SQA estimates that universities and colleges in Scotland will have to accommodate an extra 3500-4000 students as a result of Tuesday’s decision, and questions remain about how this will be paid for, especially given the anticipated drop in fee-paying foreign students.

In calculating the overall cost, another question will be key: with such a sharp rise in admissions, are we storing up an equally sharp rise in the drop-out rate? And if we are, how much does that matter?

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I never dreamed I would drop out of university. Throughout my school career it was simply a given that I would go, and while in general I enjoyed learning (let us not speak of Sixth Year Study Maths), the unspoken “point” of doing well was to get the Highers and progress to the next stage, like defeating a computer-game boss and moving to

the next level. Had I failed to meet the grades, it would have felt like game over.

And yet, after all that work, just months into my degree course I realised it simply wasn’t for me, and that university in general wasn’t – at that point my life – for me either.

While times may have changed since those days, looking back it seems mad that I made the decision about how to spend the first four years of my adult life on the basis of such scant information – a few paragraphs in a prospectus and an open-day visit. Having excelled at English, it seemed logical to apply to study English literature. I liked books, didn’t I? I enjoyed a good literary yarn. What could be more fun than studying literature?

Many, many things were more fun than studying literature, it transpired. For me, staring at a wall was more fun than studying English literature. And while I found my other two subjects more interesting, once I was actually at university I wasn’t sure why I was there, or what I was really supposed to be doing with all the time I wasn’t in lectures or tutorials.

I wanted to be busy, to be working – but I didn’t want to be sitting on my own reading books for a purpose that never seemed clear, beyond one day being able to say to prospective employers that I had a degree.

So for the decade that followed I worked, I learned from colleagues, I read books (some for enjoyment, some for learning, some for both) and I broadened my own horizons. Then, when I was finally ready (at the ripe old age of 27), I went to university. Properly this time.

Now, it’s entirely possible that I was an unusually immature, ill-disciplined and impatient 18-year-old. Perhaps the vast majority of this year’s expanded intake of school-leavers will thrive at college and university, especially with the additional support that’s being promised. It also may be true that as a young adult I benefited from job opportunities of a kind that just don’t exist in 2020.

But if the drop-out rate does increase, it’s important not to assume this represents a disaster for either the students or the institutions at which they were enrolled. There is no more valuable learning than the realisation that you are a square peg trying to fit yourself into a round hole, or that you would benefit from some more life experience before returning to formal learning. Sticking to a path you’re struggling along – just because it’s expected – may prove a recipe for misery.

Of course teachers emphasise

the importance of doing well at school – it would be perverse if they didn’t – but this message must be balanced with reassurance that one grade, one university place, one course choice is never the be-all-and-end-all. We live in constantly evolving times, and the stark truth is that some of the jobs for which youngsters are studying now might be largely obsolete, or outsourced overseas, by the time the ink is dry on their certificates.

It’s right that this year’s school-leavers have been given the benefit of the doubt and given the chance to prove themselves worthy of progressing to the next level. But if a significant portion don’t go the distance, let’s not be too quick to chalk them up as failures.