My career was my education

Black and white photo of Richard Branson sitting and reading
Image by Owen Buggy
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 14 August 2019

It’s A Level results day in the UK and many students are weighing up their options for the future. I am often asked about the value of continuing with further education as students wonder whether they should continue with school or dive into the world of business. 

There are obviously some jobs like becoming a lawyer, a doctor, accountant or pilot that need formal education. But if you are struggling at school, don’t be disheartened – remember that when you’re faced with a challenge, you should always try and look for the opportunity. Many of the world’s entrepreneurs and business leaders had difficulties with school. If I had let my exam results define me, I can’t imagine where I’d be right now.

Being dyslexic, I always struggled with exams and I ended up dropping out of school at the age of 16 when it became clear that my school couldn’t teach me what I needed to learn, in a way that would work for me. I was - and still am - terrible when it comes to spelling and memorising information. I realised my strengths lay in creative thinking, looking at the big picture, my people-skills, problem-solving ability and not being afraid to say ‘yes’. Have a think about what you are interested in and what you are good at – and focus on this.

Richard Branson as a student
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Exams don’t measure incredibly important skills like reasoning, exploring, communicating and positively influencing - essential skills that the world needs. Dyslexics naturally excel at these ways of thinking, so we should value and celebrate this, instead of seeing ourselves as failures because we don't fit into the exam culture. 

In 2019, it’s saddening to see the education system hasn’t changed all that much since I was at school and there is still a huge focus on tick boxes, memorising facts and spelling. In fact, recent changes to the system have made it even harder for students with dyslexia - and those who simply learn in different ways - to reach their full potential. The recent reforms have removed coursework in favour of one final exam and put a bigger focus on spelling and grammar. From first-hand knowledge, I know how disadvantageous this is for someone with dyslexia.

Made by Dyslexia surveyed more than 1,000 dyslexic students, parents and teachers and found that 87 per cent thought the UK exam reforms put dyslexic students at a disadvantage. Furthermore, 94 per cent said the new reforms are causing increased stress and anxiety. Read more on their research here

At times like this, it’s more important than ever to remind yourself that exams aren’t the be all and end all. After all, the alphabet goes from A to Z not A to E!

Young Richard Branson sat with others on a sofa
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I am fortunate that in many ways, my education has been my career. For almost 50 years, Virgin’s varied collection of businesses and nonprofits means that I have studied and come to understand many sectors - aviation, banking, media, hospitality and the fitness industry, to name a few. More recently, my career has also given me interesting new perspectives on many significant issues such as climate change, human rights and drug policy. In the end, solutions to big problems such as these won’t come from doing school reports, but by getting out there, asking questions, seeing things differently and finding the answers ourselves.

Richard Branson celebrates the inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight with his daughter Holly

If you want to become an entrepreneur you can take the less conventional route – but it’s also worth bearing in mind that many businesses fail. When I wanted to leave school, I remember my dad saying to me: “At least you know what you want to do. Give it a go and if it doesn’t work out you can carry on your education.” It was good motivation to do everything to make it work and fortunately for me, it worked out rather well!