Parents' Guide: The end result is just the beginning (for parents, too)

It is when the grades arrive that the important decisions must be made, writes Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online
The day A-level results arrive marks the beginning of an important rite of passage for your child. If the results are bad, you will, quite possibly, feel even more agonised than they do. But as with other milestones in their growing up - learning to walk, going to school, making friends - it is crucial that you stand back and let them, as far as possible, act independently and make their own decisions.

So try not to tell your child what to do. If you can, show that you are ready to listen and support and go through the options with them. Remember that however disappointing the results, this is not the time for recrimination and "I-told-you so".

Young people may not want to take advice from their parents, but they probably will from teachers or careers advisers - so encourage them to get in touch with their school or college and get help - quickly!

Going through clearing

Confirmation of a place from the university of your child's choice does not generally arrive until a day or two after the A-level results. If your child has narrowly missed getting the right grades, do not automatically assume that the university will not offer a place, as this may not be the case

But if the grades are poor - two Es is the minimum requirement for a degree course - you should immediately consider what vacancies may be available through clearing. You can start ringing round universities the day the results are out, or even the day before, if disappointment is on the cards. Do not wait until the UCAS clearing entry form - the students' passport to the clearing system - arrives. And do not be tempted to phone on behalf of your child: it is very important that they can demonstrate to admissions tutors their interest and initiative.

Changing courses

Bad A-level results may sometimes be a sign that a student is embarking on subjects not best suited to them, and this provides an opportunity for a rethink. Get advice from teachers. Take time to consider which university courses would really be of interest.

If you decide to go through clearing, bear in mind the possibility of combining your chosen subject with something complementary. Combined courses have more vacancies at this stage as well as offering a broader diet.

Also consider the way a course is structured. If your child is the kind of student who panics and fails to do themselves justice in big, end-of- year exams - their A-level results may be an indication of this - then they may fare better on a modular degree course, where students are examined more regularly on chunks of work.

Doing a foundation year, which many new universities offer in preparation for a degree course in subjects such as science and engineering, may be an option for a student needing to improve a subject or for an arts student switching to science. But find out about who the foundation year is aimed at and where it might lead.

A more useful alternative may be the higher national diploma, a two-year course offered by new universities as well as by large colleges of further and higher education, in vocational subjects ranging from business studies to beauty therapy. Students who do well on an HND course have the chance to convert to a degree afterwards.


This is an option to be approached with caution. Unless your child has exceptional reasons - such as illness - for doing badly in their A-levels, a further year of study is not going to turn a mediocre A-level student into a successful hard-working one, so the student needs to be sure that their motivation and self-discipline second time around, will be greatly improved.

Remember, too, that universities may ask for higher grades if students reapply - and some candidates who retake end up with lower grades.

Going back to school to retake can present difficulties of its own. Students will miss their peer group and may find it hard to adjust to working with pupils a year younger; they may also find repeating work dull.

A change of environment can help to remotivate students. But do not assume that a tutorial college or "crammer" necessarily has all the answers. While some students do very well at these colleges, others simply mess around again. Individual determination and self-discipline are the keys to success here.

Tutorial colleges do not come cheap, with fees ranging from pounds 1,000 to pounds 2,000 per subject per term. If you do opt for one, choose with care and do some research first.

A year off

Most admissions tutors look favourably upon applicants who have made enterprising and imaginative use of a year off - for instance by doing voluntary or paid work at home or overseas. So this could be a good way to plump up next year's UCAS form, if your child decides to reapply.

"Gap year" organisations, which offer jobs ranging from paid work on farms or in hotels in Australia or Canada to voluntary teaching in developing countries, should still have some vacancies at this stage. Many of their programmes run from three to six months, and could be combined with early retakes. Most cost money,

Gap Year Guidebook: 0171-221 7404; Youth for Britain: 01963 220036

Case Studies

'I was devastated when I got the results - and cried all the way

home. I'd been over-confident and didn't do enough revision'

Emma Charrington: switching

Emma Charrington, 21, who studied at an independent school in Exeter, needed three Bs to read geography at the University of Birmingham. She got a C and two Ds. She went through clearing, and got a place to do geography and environmental science at Oxford Brookes, where she has just completed her first year

"I WAS devastated when I got the results: I cried all the way home. I'd done well in my GCSEs and seemed to get them so easily. I think I was over-confident when it came to A-levels and didn't do enough revision.

"I had applied to Oxford Brookes on my original UCAS form, but they had refused me. I phoned and asked if they would reconsider, and they said they might have a place if I went through the Clearing process.

"I knew I still wanted to do geography, but Oxford Brookes don't have a straight geography course and they said I'd have to combine it with something else. I asked my geography teacher at school about this and he said geography and environmental science would be a good mix and that Oxford Brookes' course was meant to be quite good.

"The first thing Oxford Brookes asked me about was my science GCSEs. I'd got two A stars in dual science, and this helped me get a place.

"At first I was a bit shocked to be doing a BSc instead of a BA, because people say it's harder to get a BSc. It was quite hard to walk straight in to doing degree-standard chemistry. But the other students were struggling a bit with the science, too, and the lecturers have been brilliant. I feel a lot more confident now about doing maths and science.

"It's a modular course, with three different subjects each term, so we're covering a wider area than I would have done with straight geography, and there's more choice about which bits to study."

Susan Holland: retaking

Susan Holland, 19, took A-levels in English, sociology and German at a comprehensive school in Cardiff. She needed a B and C to do teacher training at the University of Reading, but got a D, E and C. She decided to retake at D'Overbroeck's tutorial college in Oxford

"THE C in German surpised me, but I was really upset about the other two. I'd worked really hard for them and all my friends got their university places.

"I tried to get something through Clearing, but it was a nightmare: the best I could get was maths with teacher training.

"I'd thought I would never want to retake. My brother did that and ended up with worse grades. My head of sixth form thought I should go back to school to retake, but none of my friends would have been there and I didn't feel I'd get enough help from my teachers.

"My mum saw an advertisement for D'Overbroeck's, and arranged an interview for me. At first I didn't want to go, but as soon as we got there the tutor we met began to boost my confidence. It was such a nice place, with a sort of family atmosphere - not like being at school - and they respect you so much more.

"I started in January and retook English in June: I need a B to go to Reading. I didn't really enjoy English at school, but this year I've loved it and my writing style has improved a lot.

"I'm glad now that I didn't get the grades first time around because I've learnt so much this year."

Sam Michell: a year off

Sam Michell, 18, who studied at Eton, had an offer to read theology and religious studies at Cambridge University with three As. He got an A and two Bs. He decided to retake and have a year out. He spent three months teaching and travelling in South America

"I DIDN'T want to spend a year covering all the same work I'd done before, so I did retakes in November and January at a tutorial college in South Kensington. I got the two As, but still didn't get the place at Cambridge. Instead I'm going to do philosophy and theology at the University of Edinburgh, which looks as if it might be more what I want, as it will dilute the theology a bit.

"For the rest of the year I wanted to get out and see places. I thought I wouldn't get far if I went on my own, because I would lack motivation, and decided to go in a group. I got in touch with an organisation I'd heard about, Youth for Britain, which, for a small fee, gave me five voluntary work options in South America.

"I chose to go with Quest Overseas, which cost about pounds 2,500 for three months, plus the cost of equipment. I raised some money organising a quiz night for my parents' friends.

"We spent the first month learning Spanish in a school in Ecuador. Then there was a month working with underprivileged children in a Lima suburb. It was fantastic, and I learnt a lot seeing how other children lived who were really so much worse off than I was.

"The last month we spent trekking and enjoying the sights of Peru and Bolivia. The whole trip has given me a bigger insight into the way the world works. I feel a lot more worldly, and confident with people."