Matt Aguilera

August 22, 2014 My life , , , ,

How the misguided belief that GCSEs mattered held me back for 11 years

“Education, like the American’s say, is a one shot deal. You get one go at this and it will affect the rest of your life.”

This was once said by a supply teacher at my high school leading up to my GCSEs. To the whole classroom.

We were working in our exercise books (remember them?) and had words like this said to us on repeat. Fail at exams, fail at life. Face no prospects now. Repeated negatives upon negatives.

Let’s not forget most of us are 15 at this point. We know nothing about life . We are spotty, ill-informed children.

In my case, I was from a council estate and didn’t exactly have solid role models in my life outside of school. You put that along with a torrent of almost daily abuse for being Spanish and/or being gay (I’m not, for what it’s worth) and you’ve got quite the mix. An outsider. Very much so. To be honest, I wasn’t perfect either.


The opening statement above makes me so bloody angry. It’s a complete load of bollocks for a start. Utter, utter bollocks. One shot deal? If GCSEs mean so much to you, you can do them again at college.

When it came to my own GCSEs, I had a combination of a lack of belief and a lack of work ethic. One came before the other I am sure of it.

I went into my exams not really caring about the results, apart from German and Science which I loved thanks to my excellent teachers in these subjects. The other teachers, however, just couldn’t seem to handle me. Maybe I didn’t give them a chance – I know for sure now that my personality type just doesn’t do too well in a classroom environment.

So what did the German and Science teachers do differently? The teachers in question, Mr Lakin and Mrs Mart (now Ms. Pointon) valued me as a person. They gave me the one-to-one time I seemed to need, inspired me and made me feel like I could achieve anything.

I contrast this with other teachers and they just didn’t know what to do. Most of them probably thought I was a complete nuisance. I could learn what was going on really quickly in class and apply it just as fast but I found this boring as hell. It didn’t stimulate my creativity like I know I need today.

I don’t blame all the teachers though. They were meant to teach us the curriculum, mark our books and ask us to keep quiet. I suppose unintentionally I was very demanding.

I had aspirations to be a musician. It’s something I took to later in life. Not to the level of stardom that I thought I could reach for, but it still became a passion.


Results time

I remember going to pick up my GCSE results wearing prescription sunglasses with my long, black hair straightened down below my shoulders. Now that the day had come, I wanted to achieve my results after all. The typical competing side of school kicked in.

At this point, I’d failed at nothing when it came to school work. I got really high scores in all of my previous key stages and was in top sets for almost every subject. I expected that the results would be good.

They weren’t. How could they be? I was downtrodden, quite depressed and could barely muster any enthusiasm for school work. I remember so clearly walking in to see my friend Alex collect his results and being congratulated by our mutual English teacher Mrs Bamford. She blanked me though. After all, I was just a blot on her copy book at that point.

Off to College

I went to college to do my GCSEs again. I loved the social aspect but hated the work again. I also did an A-Level, which was in German. However, without the care and attention that I once got from Ms. Pointon, I felt my interest wane in favour of anything other than college work.

I left about three months before I was due to take my exams. I was working part-time in Burger King too.

I had become the failure as envisioned by that sloppy, misinformed supply teacher only three years before. I really believed it too.

How do you change direction when you come from a poor background (we had our good and bad times financially) with a family that were all in entry level jobs in less than prosperous sectors? I didn’t have Mr Miyagi around the corner to inspire me.

My grandparents, who gave me so many amazing life lessons, would tell me things like “you can be anything that you like”. Well, that was more likely my Nan. My Granddad would tell me to look in the local newspaper and hope something turned up. Still, he was an inspirational man in many different ways.


I went from job to job for years. I found I was good at sales and was able to earn myself some great money around the age of 19/20. Not knowing how to deal with my mindset at the time I quickly burned out and became very depressed, along with being awfully anxious. I left my job to preserve my ‘health’.

I told myself that at the time but I just needed to get away from the call centre environment. It worked and I took other crappy jobs to pass the time, holding none down.

The Japanese trip I didn’t take

I briefly went back to college to do a music course. My true passion! As great as it was playing guitar all day, I had the pressure of no income, no grant and no financial support from my family. It wasn’t long before I had to give it up.

This time I’d given up so I could get a menial job to save up for a lifetime ambition of going to Japan. I had made friends with a Japanese/American online and he promised to put me up and find me work as an English teacher. I didn’t believe he could do that as I couldn’t speak Japanese and I didn’t have any qualifications too. Life really was as crazy as it sounds at this time.

So I got a new job and bought a guitar instead. My Japanese dream was just a distraction from anxiety and the pain of not knowing what skills I had to offer to the world.

Between 2004-2008, I can barely remember anything that I did. I can tell you that I played guitar a lot and wrote a lot of music. I had a steady relationship and worked many awful jobs. I kept distracting myself from my real goals of achieving a genuine career. Are you wondering why yet?

I believed I was a failure because of some GCSEs that I did 11 years before. Honestly. I had no one to tell me any different at this point either. I am sure that people tried in their own way but the damage was done. I thought I was a failure, therefore I was.

The Canadiana experience

I had a job as chat host for just short of a year before I embarked on my new goal going to go and live in Canada. In some ways, it would be a distraction from achieving a career but became a huge achievement in itself. It also helped me to put the fact I never went to Japan behind me.

I did it. Somehow. I put everything I needed to do in chunks. Including saving money, buying visas and tickets.

I then went to Canada, got a job in porn (writing not acting folks!), made new friends, met more girls than was healthy and prospered. Until I had to come back. That’s another story for another time.

While I was there I started to go out with a beautiful woman who I fell madly in love with. She was what I perceived to be a success – she was an Account Manager at an advertising agency, one of the biggest in the world. She was intelligent, elegant and so interesting. She even had a degree in advertising. She knew she was going to work in advertising and made it.

Is that success? I guess moderately it is but at the time I genuinely didn’t know anybody that had followed this path before.

As we grew closer and she delved into my personality she told me that I was selling myself really short. I didn’t believe her. I was writing for a porn website. I was from a council estate in Stoke, I was now in Toronto with a beautiful on/off girlfriend, I believed I was punching above my weight. She stayed true to this though and said “you could get a job in advertising”, saying I would be perfect for it.

She listed many aspects of my personality. They were true but I thought they were coming from someone that was blinded by their attraction to me – passionate, expressive, attentive, inspiring and… English.

I declined her offer to find me work in the Canadian advertising agency world. I declined the offer for her to give my resumé (I loved saying that when I was in Canada) to the headhunter that had got her the huge salary that she had. At least it seemed huge at the time. I declined because I wasn’t worthy in my head. I didn’t have the results from my education that she had.

How the hell could I justify myself to an Account Director or Vice President of an agency at that point?

There was no further coercion. I continued to write for $10 an hour. I was just happy to feel the Canadian air on my skin and still giggled like a teenager when I heard a Canadian accent, which was every single day. It was a beautiful time of my life.


Me and her grew apart, then closer, then apart and with it grew my inadequacy in many forms. I didn’t think I was good enough for her. I didn’t think I was good enough to meet her family. I thought she was embarrassed of me.

The one thing she gave me though was belief that I could make something of myself. She even suggested that I started to get involved with social media professionally.

One of the last conversations we had in Canada was that I was going to go live in Manchester, be Head of Social Media for an agency and have a cool city centre apartment . Side note: All this came true within two years.

Somehow, I had convinced myself I could do this without qualifications. I was right. Nothing was really holding me back. I just needed to prove my worth to the world from a social media perspective.

Back to Stoke

I came back from Canada. It was horrible. Back to Stoke and the reality of no job.

Luckily it didn’t stay that way for long because I was offered a job by my then friend and mentor for his business in Stoke as a content writer. I felt worthy and special. He even thought I could be the social media lead for the business.

Crazy coincidence? Seemed that way.

With one eye on Canada and my mind preoccupied with lost love, I didn’t make a success of it there and then. In fact, I made a complete disaster of it. I didn’t have any training or really know how to conduct myself in the role so I fell to pieces. Success was so fleeting.

Now it hit me hard that I didn’t have these imaginary qualifications I needed to make it. My head swirled with ideas to make money for plane rides to Canada, my complete worthlessness and death. I wanted to get off the world. It was too much.

I took time to repair listening to the Red House Painters and living in an awesome house with my friend I had reacquainted with. It was one of the toughest times of my life. It was going to get even tougher though. I wasn’t ready for the new level of pain I was going to get.

Taking a huge step back

I took on a job because I needed to. At Phones4u. In a call centre. Selling. Oh my god. Everything I had run away from.

The training aspect was enjoyable and I excelled. I made people laugh during a presentation to the whole class about mobile phone upgrades. I felt great.

Then the day came where the real job kicked in. It was like being kicked in the nuts and being told you’ve been cheated on all at once.

I couldn’t believe it. Here I was again. A failure. Barely concentrating, hearing people talking about over-hyped psychological techniques they learned from Derren Brown. Some people seemed to genuinely love the environment. I didn’t.

There was one bright light. I’ve never laughed so much with one person I met called Mark. His stories of selling Samsung DJ’s are legendary. I still keep in touch with him on Facebook because of this. He doesn’t know how much torment was going on inside me though.

I tried to keep my head in this job but I was way past caring about sales figures and I didn’t pass probation. It was for the best. I would have kept trying to get myself by and definitely wouldn’t have been where I am now.

A huge step forward

Fast forward a few months and a new optimism came along. I also had friends who supported me and gave me advice about what to do next. I called myself a social media consultant and landed consultancy work with a Stoke-based recruitment agency. I walked in there one day and got talking to someone I knew who gave me a job once. He believed in me and sold me into the business as a consultant. It was great to be doing it again. I reconnected with my mentor from the job where I should have been their social media person.

I managed to get a job on the back of this working for a new social media agency in Didsbury, Manchester. Best of all they found me. It wasn’t the right environment and I wasn’t the right fit so I left quickly. Sure they didn’t miss me.

As luck has it, only two months later I was in a meeting with my friend and mentor for a CBeebies contract. At the BBC. I had one pound in the bank and was at the BBC telling them about content announcements. I barely talked but the meeting was a success. On the back of this I was offered a job with a new marketing agency.

We negotiated and I accepted an offer. I was Head of Social Media for a city centre digital marketing agency. There is no accident that I said it would happen and then it did.

Luck played it’s part. No question. And someone believing in me enough to take me to a meeting. Also, positioning myself as someone who knew about social media meant… that I got a job in social media.

I’ve since been a Brand Manager and massively expanded on these skills. I’ve become a writer, a video editor, a presenter, a strategist, a marketer, a director-level communicator, a businessman. I’ll write about the last three years another time. I just wanted you to see the journey and why my education didn’t matter for me to make it.

Now, I’m working for myself. My own business. One of the reasons is so I can concentrate on the creative projects that I want to give to the world and to be able to write about what I want.

I hope that the young people that are receiving their GCSEs today and think that their world is about to cave in realise that it doesn’t make you a failure.

Unfortunately, having a great education doesn’t also guarantee you success either.

School does a mediocre job of telling you how to sell yourself, achieve your dreams without going to university and even how to budget your finances. Life skills that you really need.

Believe in yourself. You are so lucky to have so many inspiring books and people that are accessible from your smartphone. You can make it all happen today. Don’t be like me and tell yourself you aren’t worth it. You will believe it and then wonder where the hell those 11 years went.