A-Level results 2020: “Even the happy students weren’t happy”

Postscript: This blogpost was written a few hours before the government performed a U-turn and the situation changed, but I’m leaving it intact as a record of how I perceived things on the day, topped and tailed with brief updates. In 43 years as a guidance practitioner, it was the most difficult and extraordinary A-Level Results period I’ve ever observed or experienced and the fallout will continue to damage the lives of some students whose position has not been resolved, whilst universities have been left to pick up the pieces amidst continuing chaos and unfairness.

Meanwhile, as I add this note on the morning of 20/8/2020, BTEC results have still not been published at all. And, prior to the release of GCSE results in the next 15 minutes, the excellent Vic Goddard (Principal at Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex) rightly just said on GMB: “Again, young people who don’t deserve a kicking are getting one”.

I enjoy working as a freelance careers consultant in some excellent independent and selective schools and prior to that I led a very successful guidance department in a Hampshire state 6th form college for 19 years. I have therefore had a foot in both camps as regards the state and private sectors.

However, last Thursday I felt very uncomfortable when I started hearing some schools congratulating their students and themselves on their largely outstanding A-Level results, whilst simultaneously hearing that swathes of distraught students elsewhere were having their ambitions crushed by a statistical model that appears to have discriminated against them. What made it worse in my view was the government’s lack of empathy for these students and their parents and teachers. I posted something about this on social media on Thursday night and received a huge and unanimously supportive response.  

An experienced colleague of mine attended Results Day at a state 6th form on Thursday and I found it disturbing to hear the observations she fed back to me:

  • “It was even worse than I’d expected, the atmosphere was grim.”
  • “Very few of the students got the grades they deserved or had realistically expected.”
  • “Even the happy students weren’t happy – they had got into uni, but not necessarily the uni they wanted or with the grades they were on course to achieve.”
  • “The Head of 6th said she was completely gutted and felt she had failed them all.”

Then on Saturday a Deputy Head from another part of the country emailed me saying that her school has an improving 6th form whose Year 13 cohort were much brighter than previous year groups. However, as an inner-city comprehensive, almost 60% of the grades their students were awarded on Thursday were below their CAGs (centre assessed grades). And she also had it on good authority that the grammar school where she previously worked “had not been hammered as hard”. Consequently, she said she’s doing everything she possibly can to fight her students’ corner.

The situation was aggravated further when the Education Secretary was quoted as saying that to award students the grades they were predicted would have led them to be over-promoted into jobs that are beyond their competence, which I found an extraordinarily contemptuous remark.

The government’s argument that more disadvantaged students are going to university this year than ever before doesn’t wash either. Yes, most of them will still be going to university but a lot of state-educated students in particular will no longer be going to the university of their choice and/or the course of their choice and/or will have lost out for example on vital scholarships or accommodation.

In addition, I write a weekly blog about the availability of higher and degree apprenticeships, so I’m very aware that the number of degree apprenticeship vacancies in England has decreased by more than three quarters since lockdown. Hence, these are currently not a viable alternative option for most students either.    

On BBC’s Any Questions on Friday night, FE college student Nina spoke emotionally and eloquently for many others when she told Education Minister Nick Gibb how being downgraded and losing her place at veterinary school felt like it had ruined her life. “I have no idea how this has happened … I have never been a D grade student.” My own private client from a state school 6th form also lost out on her Firm and Insurance choice universities after being awarded CCD, despite being confident about achieving her BBB predictions. She has consequently accepted a place at a lower-tariff uni rather than risk waiting for her school’s appeal to be heard but is deeply disappointed at the outcome.   

My immediate plea to the government would be to trust teachers. They assess their learners against well-structured criteria and in my view, after 42 years’ experience in education, are infinitely more professional than they seem to be given credit for.

© Alan Bullock, 17/8/2020

A few hours after I posted this, the government performed a U-turn and decided that CAGs would be accepted after all. However, I will leave this blogpost as it stands, because for me it captures the situation as it stood at a moment that will probably go down in history. It has caused so much anxiety and disruption and it will already be too late for some applicants whose first choice university places have been unfairly lost. University admissions teams have also been left to pick up the pieces under very challenging circumstances. If I can help anyone, do call me.

18/8/2020

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