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Personal: Unlevel

They will do science to it!

I mentioned in the previous post how I did not do well in the three A Level courses I took: Biology, Chemistry and Physics. My results were so awful I haven’t even committed them to memory, though there are a couple of modular results that were impressive enough to stick with me. I’ll explain why I think I fared so badly in more detail here, reason by reason, to look at how certain factors can add up to derail an academic career.


It wouldn’t be fair of me to say it was simply the fault of the school or of specific teachers, though they were factors and I’ll cover those in due course. I can’t deny though that my own mental state played a big part. I was very unhappy at the time, especially in the final year, so when it came to my education it was hard to overcome the overwhelming apathy I felt for everything. It’s something that warrants a post of its own so I’ll say little more here.

The School

Last time I said that I failed to get into my first choice of secondary school and ultimately elected not to appeal the decision, opting instead to go with the school they chose for me that was just minutes away from where I lived. What I hadn’t known at the time was that the school was in a definite decline.

I wasn’t the only student going there as their second (or third) choice, so to a certain extent it could be said that they weren’t getting the best students, the people who wanted to be there and were willing to learn. Again it generated a certain amount of apathy among a lot of the students and teachers. Those teachers who cared nevertheless couldn’t teach as they wanted to as they were forced to spend time dealing with unruly students, which meant the students who were willing to learn suffered as a result.

What that meant was that almost any teacher who had an opportunity to leave for a better school did so (though some excellent ones lived so close that they stayed), so there was always something of a scramble to replace outgoing staff and it didn’t seem like the school was able to choose from the best of the best, it was more that they were taking who they could get. A school where the majority of the staff and students would have chosen to be elsewhere did not make for a good learning environment.


In Physics our main teacher was a good one but with one significant problem, namely that he only knew how to teach A Level Physics through drawing on A Level Maths, a subject that only two people in the class were taking (and one of them left Physics early on). He would suddenly slip into calculus or similar things, only to be met with blank stares, and that kind of maths isn’t something you can sum up briefly and move on, so most of us struggled.

Then he left for a better job and we were left with our secondary teacher, who was suddenly responsible for the whole course. He was a nice man who had actually been brought out of retirement to cover the class, but that did mean that his teaching methods essentially hailed from a different era and we struggled to follow what he was teaching, to the point that most of the class – who, remember, chose the subject out of a genuine interest – ultimately all but gave up on it.

At the end of the first year we had only had one modular exam, covering what was called the Foundation Physics (primarily based on what we had learned with the main teacher). I enjoyed the course and it reflected what was great about physics, looking at how everything works and interacts. There was a tremendous sense of logic to it all, and when the results came in I’d earned a ‘C’ grade. That isn’t hugely impressive by itself, but it was also the highest grade in the class.

I’m sure that wasn’t something that continued into the remaining exams but by the time we received those results I’d moved away so I don’t know how anybody else fared. I’d guess nobody did that well though seeing as none of us had any enthusiasm for the subject by that point, though a chemistry teacher who joined the school shortly before the exams tried to help us as much as he could with a bunch of last-minute revision sessions, which left us feeling that we actually could have learned something if he’d been one of our teachers over the past two years.



Grand Midwife: As the tea boils, please join hands with your beloved smizmar. [Kif looks away.] Oh, right, sorry. But I memorised the ceremony by rote and it mentions her a lot.

 Kif: I’ll try to endure.

 Grand Midwife: Good, ’cause I’m not changing it.

Chemistry was also taught by two teachers but in a more equal fashion compared to the physics. Initially at least the class respected one of them but not the other, who was always treated as a bit of a joke (she later left to be head of the science department at another school, something which we all had trouble believing).

That respect took a hit when the results came in for our first modular exam. None of us did as well as we should have done and we almost universally had results that could be considered bad. In response to that both teachers were present at the next class and said that previous classes had always done well so it was clearly us at fault, not them, so they weren’t going to be changing their approach (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s how we interpreted it, and these days I’m reminded of it when I hear the Futurama quote above).

Some of us re-took that module two or three times, but as there was no change in teaching method we didn’t really improve. One day during the exam period at the end of the two years I was woken by a phone call from one of the chemistry teachers, asking where I was. It turned out I’d signed up (or had been signed up) to re-take that module yet again and had completely forgotten about it, so he quickly drove over to pick me up and get me to the exam in time. I hadn’t revised for it though (and had essentially given up on the subject entirely by that point) so I must have done terribly.


Biology was the one undeniable highlight of my A Levels. I mentioned last time that I was utterly fascinated by molecular biology and genetics so lapped it up. It helped that our two teachers were both good, one being the school’s head of science and who lived close enough that it didn’t make sense to leave for a school that deserved her, though the other was plagued by illness for a while so wasn’t always there to teach us. The course covered four modules, which I’ll list here as their content is important:

  • Cell Biology and Genetics – The title explains it pretty well. This module was all about the cells that make up biological lifeforms, how they interact and how their characteristics are passed on.
  • Systems and their Maintenance – This one looked at biology on a slightly larger scale, looking at how the different organs interact and how the overall systems (breathing, digestion, reproduction) function.
  • The Organism and the Environment – This was biology on a much larger scale, how individual biological units (animals and plants) interact with others, the general behaviour of ecosystems and the regulation of internal and external environments. There are huge chunks of the book for this module that weren’t part of this course as they were for a related but separate course that we weren’t studying, Humans and the Environment. This other course focused more on people, how they interacted with others and with the environment, as well as a couple of chapters on evolution.
  • Food and Health – Another title that’s fairly self-explanatory. This module was all about food types, how organisms take in and process nutrition, how different diseases function, why food needs to be properly stored and the processes involved when things like cheese and yoghurt and made.

By the end of the first year we had had two modular exams, covering the first two modules above. The first was my favourite (in fact I went and fetched my books just now to make sure I got the module names correct and ended up reading through bits of the first one) but Systems and their Maintenance was also a good one, despite covering things that can be seen with the naked eye and as such not being so focused on the small scale stuff I enjoy. In the results for those two exams I had two ‘A’ grades. If memory serves I had the highest grade for the first one and the second-highest in the other. That stood in stark contrast to my grades in the other two subjects and leant weight to what we (the students) had been saying, that there were issues with the teaching.

Across two years and three A Levels those two results are the only highlights for me, which should give you a clue about how I fared with the other two modules, and their descriptions above should suggest why that is. They were focused on things I just didn’t find so interesting, looking at plants, the environment, food and things like that. Everything was either on too big a scale or just not looking at what I considered to be the interesting aspects of biology.

Suddenly, learning it was work rather than fun which, when combined with the personal issues I alluded to near the start of this post, meant I could not learn it anywhere near as easily and my enthusiasm levels crashed. Biology also had a big focus on the practical side, with a big chunk of the final grade affected by experiment write-ups, microscope drawings and other things along those lines. I didn’t enjoy any of that and even when I loved the theory I just did not like the experiments that tied into it, and I’m sure it showed in my work. I don’t remember the grades for those last two modules or the other elements but I know they weren’t good.


That’s it then. Plenty of factors, some within my control and others not, added up to make it so that I either could not or would not learn all I needed to, which for some of the subjects was also reflected in the amount of effort I put into revision. By the time I received my results I had already moved away to another part of the country so a friend of mine collected my results and was supposed to post them. However, overall the results of most of the science classes were so bad that we were told we had a few days to contact the exam board if we wanted anything stricken from the record, and as posting them would have taken longer than that he read them out to me over the phone.

I remember him being surprised at how calmly I reacted to hearing my results but everything around the A Levels had been so bad for so long that none of it mattered. I just didn’t care any more.

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  1. August 3, 2011 at 15:05

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