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August 10 2000
EDUCATION
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They are the past exam stars whose results inspired envy.
Catherine Lockwood asks what they have achieved since

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Students from King Edward VI Handsworth School, Birmingham, celebrating their results last year after four of the class got five grade As and ten got four grade As
Photograph: IAN HODGSON/REUTERS

Where do brilliant A levels take you?

Liz Wootten achieved six grade As at A level. She is now a computer programmer in Berkshire
Photograph: BEN GURR
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Among the thousands of pupils receiving their A-level results next week will be a handful with grades so breathtakingly brilliant that most of us will simply gasp in awe.

This year's A-level superstars will notch up five or six A grades in a show of academic agility beyond the wildest dreams of most students. They will be fêted as Britain's brainiest pupils and will appear to have the world at their feet.

But once they have scaled such dizzy heights at the age of 18, what can these exceptional young people do next? Will A levels be the peak of their achievements, or are they destined for greater things?

To find out, The Times picked four A-level stars at random and asked them to reflect on their lives since the exams.


PAUL ARMSTRONG-TAYLOR, 25

Paul gained six grade As in 1993 (maths, further maths, physics, economics, geography and general studies). After leaving Kelly College in Tavistock, Devon, he read economics at Cambridge.

"At Cambridge I had to work harder than at school because there were a lot of people of a similar standard to me. I enjoyed my time there and I played a lot of cricket. But I was bitterly disappointed at just missing a first. A 2:1 was not what I was aiming for.

"My ambition had always been to be a banker, so I joined the investment bank Morgan Stanley as an analyst. I was earning lots of money but I was not happy. I value intellectual freedom, but when you are just starting out in a job you don't have that. What you do is determined by other people," he says.

"After a year, I went back to Cambridge to do a masters in economics. Part of the motive was probably that I was still angry at getting a 2:1. I felt that I could do better and I did - earning the prize for the best overall performance.

"I then joined London Economics, an economics consultancy, where my work was a good balance between business and academia. But there wasn't time in my life to do other things, so I decided to return to the academic world.

"I have been at Harvard for a year now, researching a PhD in economics. It is an exciting opportunity to join one of the world's most outstanding economics departments and to experience America. One of the advantages of academia is that you have the long holidays to pursue other experiences. This summer, for example, I am going to China to help to start a firm providing business services and venture capital to recently formed high-tech enterprises.

"I shall be at Harvard for three more years, but I don't know what I'll do then. I am not sure there is anything I want to spend the rest of my life doing. I shall have to see what opportunities come along.

"The prospect of earning lots of money used to be important to me but I realised at Morgan Stanley that there is a trade-off between earning lots and doing things that you find interesting.

"At the end of my life, I want to feel good because I have had lots of interesting experiences and interesting relationships, not because I have a seven-figure bank balance.

"My A-level results seem pretty irrelevant now - but on the other hand they got me into Cambridge and that put me on my present track.

"Where you go to university does make a difference. Having been to Cambridge opens doors."


PAUL THOMPSON, 28

Paul gained nine A levels, seven at grade A. He sat six in 1989 - physics, chemistry, further maths, general studies, business studies (B) and Latin. A year earlier he had taken maths, economics and Greek (B). After leaving St Peter's School in York, he read classics and maths at Oxford.

"When I was 18 I was not sure what I was going to do career-wise," he says. "That's one of the disadvantages of doing so many A levels; there's no obvious path. But I don't regret taking them. It's a matter of doing what is fun and interesting. A lot of what I've learnt has not been of any particular use.

"Towards the end of my time at Oxford I became aware that many other students already knew what careers they were heading for. I realised then that I was intrigued by neuroscience and I thought that it would be fun to go to America to do brain research. That was the point at which I made a sensible career choice. Until then, I had idealistically pursued whatever subject interested me at a particular time.

"I left Oxford with a double first and a master's in maths, and went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1993. I was lucky to join a PhD programme that trains students in brain research.

"But when my scholarship ended, after a year, I got a shock when the people at UCLA sat me down and said: 'Right, your PhD is going to take four more years. How are you going to fund it?'

"I applied all over the place for grants, but most organisations didn't give money to overseas students. I was put in touch with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and it supported me until I was awarded my PhD in 1998 [he was also judged outstanding graduate of the year, out of 1,000 students].

"I am now an assistant professor of neurology at UCLA and I am developing new techniques to study how a child's brain develops.

I am particularly involved in brain-mapping, which is identifying what areas of the brain are responsible for specific functions. "The academic world is not seen as being well paid. But research can be financially rewarding, depending on the level of grants you attract.

"I would find it tough to leave UCLA because it is a leader in my research field, but my American wife rather likes the idea of living in England.

"Academically, things have been interesting but a more important aspect of my life has been meeting new people. I work with many talented PhD students and I can see that the best grades on their own do not lead to the best careers.

"What's important is drive, enthusiasm, hard work and learning from your mistakes."


LIZ WOOTTEN, 23

Liz achieved six grade As in 1994 (mathematics, further maths, physics, German, statistics and general studies). After leaving Polam Hall School in Darlington, Co Durham, she read maths at Oxford.

"When I arrived at Oxford," she says, "I discovered plenty of undergraduates who had the same grades as me and better, so I was given loads of stick from people who had seen newspaper coverage of my results. I realised I was a small fish in a huge pond.

"In the first year I was quite ill with viral infections so I suddenly found myself running along at the back of the class trying to catch up. It was a real shock because I'd always found studying relatively easy.


'I'm earning what seems like loads of money after five years on a grant'

"At the end of the first year I was devastated to get a poor third as I'd never done badly in exams before. I felt that everything had gone wrong. It's not that I wasn't working reasonably hard; it was that I genuinely couldn't do it. I could not believe how much more difficult the work was compared with A levels. I think the fact that many of my friends were the most outstanding mathematicians in the year made me feel even worse.

"I realised I was going to have to put in a lot more effort, and at the end of the four-year course I came out with a good 2:1. I then heard that GCHQ was looking for mathematicians but there were 1,000 applicants for three jobs, including people with high firsts and PhDs. So GCHQ didn't want me.

"After that, because there are not many jobs for pure mathematicians, I took a one-year masters in computing. Then, last October, I joined the Tao Group in Reading, Berkshire, as a computer programmer. It's an intellectual property and software company that specialises in developing leading-edge technologies.

"It's an astonishingly nice environment to work in and I'm earning what seems like loads of money after living on a grant for five years. I'm not particularly good at planning ahead so I imagine I'll stay here for as long as I'm happy.

"My A-level results are not terribly significant any more. When I was job-hunting it was my degrees that mattered."


KEVIN RAMSDEN, 27

Kevin achieved six grade As in 1991 (maths, further maths, physics, chemistry, biology and general studies). After leaving Bridlington Upper School in East Yorkshire, he read physics at Oxford.


'A levels are important because they are a stepping stone'

"Oxford isn't as happening as Manchester or Edinburgh," he says, "but academically it is good and you get a decent job at the end of it. I enjoyed my time there and I didn't find the workload too bad. I came out with a first.

"I then joined KPMG in London to train as an accountant, but I quickly realised that it wasn't for me. Despite that, I stayed for four years because I wanted to qualify and get some solid post-qualification experience under my belt.

"Just under a year ago I joined the merchant bank N. M. Rothschild in its corporate finance department.

"I enjoy my job because it is much more strategic than accountancy. I work long hours - about 70 a week - but that's par for the course in investment banking. I don't know what the future holds, but at the moment I'm very career-orientated.

"I think A levels are as important as your degree because they are a stepping stone. If you mess up either A levels or the degree, you are in for a hard time."

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