A Level crisis ‘could have turned clock back on social mobility for a generation’

Highgate School headteacher Adam Pettitt. Picture: Highgate School

Highgate School headteacher Adam Pettitt. Picture: Highgate School - Credit: Highgate School

Even though the news of the Government’s U-turn only took five days to come, it was an incredibly difficult period for these young people.

You have to remember that they have been in limbo since April when their exams were cancelled: news of how grades would be awarded took time to come through, and then there was the traditional long wait amidst uncertainty about what would happen, and then this five-day fiasco.

I feel incredibly sorry for all A level students.

READ MORE: ‘Resilient students’ wholeheartedly deserve improved grades, says headteacher I’m hugely relieved that the algorithm-based results were withdrawn as that means that the worst injustices have been corrected: however technically correct it may have been, that doesn’t help you when you are hit with a completely unexpected and unwarranted E grade when you’ve been told you’d get a B.

That was just inhumane, and it was staggering bureaucratic insensitivity to visit these grades on anyone, especially the least advantaged young people in the nation’s schools. It could have turned the clock back on social mobility for a generation.

There’s been wonderful resilience and determination not to let this get them down; we saw students use their study leave and exam time to do brilliant things – even getting ahead with their university reading lists!

I’ve been impressed, too, by the lengths universities are going to in order to make sense of the mess.

It’s not been the scale of the problem for us: the majority of Highgate School and LAET (London Academy of Excellence Tottenham, a free school co-sponsored by Highgate School) students either got to their first choice universities or had really good options, even before the grades were corrected.

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But for those whose results were completely inexplicable – two or three grades lower than predicted – applying for medicine, dentistry or engineering, their problems were incredibly acute and we and the students were powerless: no appeal system we could use, and nowhere to turn.

It was completely bewildering and distressing. That experience alone justified the U-turn, and I am glad that Mr Williamson eventually listened to the young people’s voices. Multiply that out across all schools and imagine the effect on the least advantaged young people, and you begin to get a sense of the depth of injustice.

But what worries me now is the effect this may have had on A level students who were nervous about applying to university in the first place. It’s a big move to apply to university if your older siblings or your parents haven’t been; this results crisis may have dealt a devastating blow to the work in schools and colleges to widen participation in higher education among the most disadvantaged students.

It’s not going to be straightforward for universities who find themselves with more students who have qualified to come in 2020 than there are places; it will be good news for universities who were worried about the fall in student numbers from other countries, but there will be a lot of students who will have to take an enforced gap year (deferred entry).

It’s really important that any students who now find themselves with the grades for their first choice, but having accepted a place elsewhere, to get in touch with their university (or to check emails from them).

But we need to know how this will play out on Year 14 students who were intending to apply to uni post-A level (and take a gap year): will they get preferential treatment? They deserve it. And then there’s the new Year 13: the government must lift the cap on student numbers for 2021 entry so that the next generation doesn’t pay the price for the results fiasco, and find they can’t get to university because the Class of 2020 has taken up places.

It’s far from over.