“You can’t measure ability on postcodes”: A Level students on this year’s shit show

Lockdown prevented pupils from sitting exams, so the Government based grades on national statistics; 39 per cent have been downgraded

Results day always spans the entire spectrum of human emotion. There’s joy, as young people get places at their first-choice university or exceed exceptions, excitement as the prospect of leaving home becomes very real and nostalgia for school days. Yet there’s also sadness, when the grade requirements aren’t quite met.

This year, though, things feel different. Due to the global pandemic, students across the UK weren’t able to sit their A Level exams, a fact that has impacted the A Level grading for 2020. The Government instructed teachers to submit the grades they thought students would achieve if they had taken exams (this is called the Centre Assessment Grade). Exam boards then moderated these grades, taking into account how well students at the same school did in the same subjects in the past three years. Critics have branded this a postcode lottery.

The results were released this morning (August 13), and it’s emerged that 39.1 per cent of pupils’ grades were downgraded. This has placed increasing pressure for the Government, with Labour leader Keir Starmer claiming that the current process “has fundamentally failed” and that “the Government needs to rethink this”. He added that “they shouldn’t rule anything out, including the approach that was forced on the Scottish Government to go back to the assessments last week.”

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NME spoke to four students who collected their results today to hear how the situation has affected them. 

Dan Bailey, 18

“I took History as one of my A Levels. I did an AS last year and received an A, my predicted grade was an A and I got a B in my mock exam. But I’ve been given a C, which is somewhat confusing. As far as I’m concerned, the ‘contract’ you have with exam boards and the Government is that if you work hard you get what you earned, and a lot us haven’t had that. I know a lot of people who have had it far worse [than me].

“I had initially planned to take a year out and do some voluntary work, but because that’s not possible I’m now applying through clearing.

“I completely understand that no Government planned for a pandemic. But lockdown started in March. Exams were cancelled in March, and they’ve had months now to come up with a plan. Sure, it’s not going to be fool-proof – they had to cancel the exams and it was going to be a complicated system for them to work out, but they’re the Department for Education. They should have worked out a better system than this – it’s far too chaotic.”

Owen Wilson, 18

“I was predicted A* in Business and throughout the first year I got the maximum grade possible for every assignment. In Criminology I was predicted a B and was currently working at a C/B, but still had six months before the exam to improve. In Accounting I was working at a C – I got 5 C’s in a row in the mocks. Then my grades came through: A in Business, C in Criminology and E in Accounting. I can’t understand why they were downgraded.

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“I was always having a gap year to work first, but the grades have ruined my confidence and made me feel stupid. The head at college was on the phone to me and couldn’t understand. How can the Government tell him what my grades are? I went through a hard time in college and wanted to get good grades to make my family proud.”

Freya Wassell, 18

“I got ABBB, having hoped for all As. Teachers weren’t really allowed to say what they’d given as the Centre Assessment Grade, but one told me tjat mine was significantly higher than the B that I was awarded, and obviously had been lowered by the national statistics.

“I live in a lower income area and my college is in a lower income area. My college doesn’t rank highly, so I’d be absolutely gutted if that was a factor into why my results are lower. I think it’s disgraceful; you can’t measure somebody’s academic ability on their postcode.

“I was really lucky as I’ve got an unconditional offer to study Law at Portsmouth University, so I’ve been able to keep my place; but with my results I wouldn’t have got that offer now.”

Samantha Smith, 18

“My results weren’t what I expected; they were abysmal. My predicted grades were B C D, but I was expected to get A*s, As and Bs in my A Levels. Instead I was downgraded to a B an E and a U, which absolutely unthinkable. I’ve worked three minimum wage jobs to finance myself through my exams. I’ve been homeless, sofa-surfed and supported myself through the past two years. To overcome that level of adversity and be told that your postcode matters more than your potential is a massive kick in the teeth.

“I was expecting to go to a top Russell Group University to study Law, but I’ve been rejected. I’m going to appeal and do everything in my power to push myself back up, because this isn’t the end for me. My biggest concern is for students like me who open their exam results on their own and have no one to support them but their teachers. Some may resign themselves to not being good enough, even though they have potential to achieve far beyond what they’ve been given.”

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