On the phones: 'I've only had two people break down in tears. That's good'

The UCAS call centre breaks the good news - and the bad
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The Independent Online

Sam Walthen was not overly emotional as she put down her phone, took a sip from her drink and walked away from her desk. "I've only had two people break down in tears so far," she said. "That's good for results day."

Welcome to the UCAS call centre and the brutal world of university clearing.

"We have to keep calm and carry on," her colleague Barbara Weldon added. "I have sons myself who have all gone through this, there have been tears in the toilets in the past but it doesn't do the student any good to do that."

The two women and their colleagues in Cheltenham were fielding calls yesterday from thousands of teenagers – some nervy, trying to find out if their A-level results were going to be good enough to get them into university, others tearful as they came to the realisation that they weren't.

A large monitor on the wall reminded the staff how many calls they had answered and how many people were still on the line, waiting to be told their fate. In the first few hours alone, there were 4,000 of them.

Sam said: "One of my first calls of the morning was from a young girl: I got to deliver the news to her that she had got into Oxford. In the background, I heard her whole family erupt in cheers and shouting, they had all come round to sit with her while she made the call, the party is probably still going on now.

"But then you get the ones who didn't make it. Then your professionalism has to kick in."

At one nearby desk, congratulations were being offered. At the next, a more difficult conversation was playing out: the operator's pad covered in frantic scribblings as he tried to convince the caller that failing to get the required grades was not the end of the world.

Barbara said that there are a couple of issues for the staff this year. "We are a little worried about the number of people disappointed, but there are always going to be some," she said.

Across the room, David Willetts, the minister for Universities and Science – in for the day – was hearing a tale of woe from one girl who had not made it. "She needed three As to get on to her course but got an A*, and A and a B. She was on tenterhooks. These experiences bring it home to me: there are human stories, there are young people trying to do the right thing and I do sympathise with them," he said.

"The minister listened in on a couple of calls with me," said Sam. "I asked him if he wanted to talk to the people and give them some advice, but he said 'no'," she added.

But Mr Willetts did have some counsel to offer. In an interview with The Independent, he said that those who did not get in should think about "adding something extra to their CVs. Can people do volunteer work, for example?"

"I understand the aspiration," he insisted, but said: "Last year, there were 31,000 places at Russell Group universities and there were 38,000 people who attained the necessary grades to get in. I understand that people with three As are very proud of their academic achievement but universities are so competitive."

A lot of the staff tasked with handing out advice to those unfortunate enough to be turned down were called in from other departments to help for the day. "On this day, the call centre becomes the focal point of the whole company, everything is geared towards processing the calls," said Barbara.

The staff worked for 12 hours yesterday, 11 today and many will be back in on Saturday to deal with the range of emotions: from the strops to the tears as well as a few cheers.

For most there, it is hard work, but it is the culmination of a year's effort. There is a "last day of school" feeling, said one. The staff member Kevin Campbell said he and his colleagues were getting through a lot of coffee. "We have had to restock today," he said. The staff are glued to their seats. Kevin noted: "They've put on a sweet trolley that they bring around to keep us going."