Oliver James: Firsts among equals

'First in school, last in life?', that is the question, but alas, I can only find three scientific studies specifically addressing it. While showing that firsts do do better, it's only in the short term (sighs of relief from the thirds), and two of the studies were flawed. Scientifically solid evidence on whether your class of degree predicts success throughout life is nonexistent. Anecdotalism can be wheeled out to support any view: Tony Blair did not get a first, Gordon Brown (and Cherie Blair) did. So what?

My own prejudice is that most first-getters are people who had an unhealthy impulse to please adults. At a young age they started seeing the world through their parents' eyes, transferred this to teachers and examiners, and learnt how to give them what they wanted. All that a first proves is that they are good at being goody-goodies.

To test this theory, a few years ago I conducted a study. I researched the degree classes of the chairmen from the top 50 of The Times's 1,000 top industrial companies in the years 1978, 1988, and 1992 to see if there was any correlation between career success and degree class. Initially, the results made me feel like David Beckham on missing that penalty.

Of the 60 chairmen who had taken a graded degree at a British university, 14 (24 per cent) had achieved a first. Since only 8 per cent of graduates got firsts in 1955 (when the chairmen graduated, on average) this was fully three times more than was normal for a sample of 60 men of that generation. Did I not like that.

However, bless them, all but one of the chairmen whom I spoke to (and a sporting 17 of them returned my call) felt that it was a lot of rot that firsts do better than the rest. Even the ones with firsts thought so, such as Maurice Saatchi (economics, London School of Economics).

He said: 'A first proves only one thing - motivation. I worked until 1 or 2am every night and all weekend every weekend in my final year. It gives you a head start, but I should have thought that only lasts a couple of years.'

When you look more closely at the results of my survey, they do not support the idea that first in school necessarily means first in life. Nine out of the 14 firsts took vocational degrees (engineering, business studies, computer science and so on). A first only predicted career success if it gave you a head start in that particular technical profession.

In my opinion, Machiavellian skills at office politics (of which I have none) are far better predictors of success than degree class, and the bosses are inclined to agree with me. Degree class is seen as wholly irrelevant once someone has been selected as a potential employee or become one.

Yeah, I know: that's just the sort of fluffy thinking you would expect from someone who got a 2:2, but I got mine in the days when firsts really were firsts, and at a proper university, and anyway... (that's enough - ed).

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.