Saturday, 20 August 2011


The rioting may have abated in the UK (the clear-up is well underway with encouraging messages composed on hoardings to console local communities, certain banks offering significant interest free loans to help small businesses to get back on their feet and publicly expressed disgust at the perpetrators of the devastation and damage; firm sentences are being passed on those who were involved  - four year jail sentences being given to people who incited others to loot and pillage, even when their called-for riots failed to occur),  but turmoil continues in many spheres.  The stock markets are plunging, various countries in the Middle East and Africa seem increasingly unstable, and there is expressed dissatisfaction with governmental control in many regions (I am bemused by the rush away from Equities into Government Bonds on the Financial Markets, when there is such vocal discontent and lack of confidence being voiced against various governments’ abilities to get their fiscal affairs in order).

These are stressful times.

Stress is one of the primary causes of issues for employers in our modern, demanding and fast-paced world.  It distracts people from the things they should be doing, results in carelessness, accidents, sickness and absenteeism and is the frequent root of bullying and harassment claims in the workplace, effecting Grievance/Employment Tribunal proceedings and attrition.  I’m sure we all know some of the symptoms of stress: that constant internal gnawing of worry, like a rat nibbling at your insides; insomnia – lying awake fretting while others sleep; and sudden surges of all-consuming panic bursting through you like water forced through a bore hole.  It is worth remembering that

"The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it." - Eckhart Tolle
My household was stressful on Thursday.  It was the day in England and Wales that the results were given for A Levels and Pre-U’s (a new type of exam deemed more rigorous and intellectually stretching than conventional A Levels).  My 18 year old son took both types of exam this summer and a place at his chosen university was conditional on his results.  He was up at 8.00 am (unusually early for him during the holidays) and, within quarter of an hour, was trying to log onto the UCAS website to see if he had secured a place at Imperial to read Computer Sciences – one of the top courses in the world.  However, despite being a “Techie”, he was unable to access the UCAS Tracking system (I did enjoy his ironic Facebook status update offering to try to restore it) – neither were thousands of other would-be-students able to get onto the site.  It was down for almost four hours, unable to cope with the deluge of hits.  The mounting stress amongst the aspiring undergraduates was almost palpable – frantic instant messages on Facebook and Twitter, urgent phone calls seeking clarification and support, consoling discussions with working parents and friends (I dread to think of the cost that the resultant distraction had on many employees’ performance and hence their employers’ bottom lines – no wonder the Financial Markets were in turmoil!!) – Individuals were desperately trying to confirm that they were not unique in being unable to access the site.  Despite knowing that this year there were a record number of applicants (it is the last year in England and Wales before a significant increase in student fees), UCAS had failed to prepare for the onslaught – they underestimated the number of people trying to log onto their system by a third, no wonder the site could not cope.

For those of you who are interested, my son finally discovered that, despite having excellent results (two A*s, an A, a one-mark-off an A and a b for his A/S), he had not been granted a place at Imperial - as you can imagine, at this stage the domestic stress levels increased further in London SW9.  I would not have been surprised to have seen the house physically lifted by the swirling cyclone of emotional commotion, like Dorothy and Toto being carried by the twister in The Wizard of Oz.  He was shocked and dismayed, as indeed were many of his friends who found themselves in similar circumstances. Looking on the University Clearing site, there were places to read Nursing at Kings College London or Law in Edinburgh, but they were not subjects that he had hoped to study.   I did what I could to coach him into devising a solution. I am so proud of him - he pulled himself round much faster than I think I would have done in the same situation. On a professional level, it was fascinating to observe.  In a very short space of time, he went through various stages of The Change Curve:

·       DISBELIEF (at his predicament);

·       DESPONDENCY (when he felt that his future had been ruined);

·       ANGER (when he realized that others with less good grades had secured their places and it seemed unfair and also in frustration at being unable to get the information he needed);

·       INTRIGUE (once he started taking action to improve his situation);

·       CONCERN (that he would be unable to find the right solution);

·       TENTATIVE OPTIMISM (when he managed to speak with the right person at a top university that was keen to have him);

·       ACCEPTANCE (at first he was not jubilant, despite being offered a confirmed place at a leading university, ranked in the top 30 in the world for his chosen subject, that boasts 23 Nobel Prize winners – 6 of whom are currently in residence teaching and researching); and ultimately

·       CONFIDENCE (Things have worked out OK for him.  He regained his positive attitude and enthusiasm once he realised he had found a place that is right for him, in an environment that will be suitably stretching and enjoyable)

He has accepted a place at Manchester and, being a doting mother, I think they are lucky to have him.

Two of the biggest learnings for me from the experience are the importance of preparation and the impact of communication.  Much of the angst could have been reduced if UCAS had anticipated the tsunami of hits to the site and hence ensured that it could cope (the results date had been known for months).  My son and his peers should have devised back-up-plans in the event that their preferred options did not materialise – in effect a Disaster Recovery Plan.  We had given this some thought but, with hindsight, there is more that we could have done, such as having pre-prepared contact numbers and emails rather than having to locate them under stress on the day.

I was surprised at the varying levels of communication – the support group that fellow students gave to each other through social media was heart-warming – at one stage my son was in simultaneous instant message discussions with over a dozen individuals.  People did what they could to encourage and advise each other (not unlike the messages now written on the post riot hoardings).  A contact on Twitter tweeted me to say that the Admissions Department at Hull, who were clearly aware of the UCAS site problems, had been very helpful by phone.  Regrettably, my son was not so lucky, when he called Imperial, they refused to discuss anything by telephone, so he remained in suspense, waiting for UCAS to resume their service so that he could discover whether he had a place – this lost him many hours of resolving the matter and added considerable to the stress.  Organisations should be sensitive and responsive, mindful of the circumstances that prompt individuals to reach out to them – if information could have been provided verbally the number of online hits to the UCAS site could have been reduced and the site might have resumed sooner which would have benefitted a large number of people.  

I was surprised to discover that my tweets asking what others were doing in similar situations ended up on Channel 4 News.  Based on the issues that I and others raised, educational experts provided sensible advice on the programme, which I hope has enabled others to resolve their own predicaments. How times have changed and thank goodness for the technology that has enhanced our ability to communicate swiftly and with effect.  Perhaps my son will be able to make his own contribution to enhancing communication technology as part of his studies at Manchester.  It would be good for something positive to be born from the turmoil and stress.

I’d like to wish all this year’s school leavers every success in what they have opted to do going forward.


  1. So glad that things worked out for him - and he will enjoy his time in Manchester I'm sure. Clarkie x

  2. Please to report that the Biology paper was remarked (at his school's insistence) and he now has 2 A*'s and two A's - it would have been good to have had the right results earlier. On a related theme, I gather that King's school in Wimbledon had the wrong results for a whole group of pupils and by the time the error was amended they had all lost their university places. I can't help but feel that UCAS, Edexcel and others should think a bit more about the impact that they have on people. These are our children's and hence our country's future that we are not taking sufficiently seriously.