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As an A-level student, I am furious that the government has set us up to fail

My peers and I have spent the last couple of months in a state of paralysing uncertainty. After Gavin Williamson’s snap decision, the future looks even less bright for us

Roya Shahidi
Thursday 13 August 2020 14:25 BST
Education secretary Gavin Williamson says purpose of education is to equip people with skills for a 'meaningful job'

Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, A-level results day this Thursday will be the first semblance of normality I and many other students have had for months. As per, students like me from up and down the country will be opening envelopes with grades that will determine their next steps in life. But this time, with a roster of expected issues with the system, it will still be a very far cry from “normal”.

For the past few months, year 13 students like me have been living in varying degrees of limbo. Unlike other school students, our lessons would have ended in May. With no more exams or another school year to prepare for, there was no obligation to continue teaching past that point. After an abrupt announcement that A-levels were cancelled and a couple of weeks of receiving online assignments, sixth form was over.

Sadness about missing out on end-of-year celebrations and the relief of having no exams soon turned into anxieties about how these grades would be calculated or whether university was even worth going to this year.

The cancellation of A-levels has meant that we will receive “centre-assessed grades”. Using evidence from the past two years, colleges and sixth forms will determine the grades their students would have most likely achieved, which will then be standardised by Ofqual. A ridiculously last-minute announcement by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, on Wednesday states that mock grades can be used if students are unhappy with these results.

Worries have primarily arisen because of the lack of concrete evidence. Due to A-level reforms implemented from 2017, AS qualifications have become more or less redundant due to the new, linear style. With barely any formal assessment until the final exams, every school has a different approach when it comes to grading mock exams and classroom assessments. These cannot be moderated nationwide, meaning that a student’s first chance to “prove oneself” properly is in the final A-level exam. Which, of course, has not happened this year.

Anyone who has had any experience of linear A-levels will agree that using mocks as a “safety net” is ludicrous. What kind of “safety net” can they really be when some schools do not even do them, they are not standardised and there is no incentive to work hard for them? With the government’s announcement coming in at the last possible minute without even consulting universities, I cannot imagine that this is anything but shameless damage control. It is ironic that an institution called the Department of Education can have such little understanding of how post-16 education works.

For students who have only experienced a system which encourages focusing all efforts on exam season, this is all terribly frustrating. A lot of people who did not do well in mock exams because they were told they were unimportant are now having to face the likelihood of lower grades than they may have achieved. The assessed grades are probably the best Ofqual can do, but it raises the question: wouldn’t this system have been so much fairer if our A-level grades were not solely based on final exams? I’d like to think so. Relying on a few hours of tests to determine the next stage of a student’s life is perhaps not the best idea.

The most unfair outcome of this is that it will impact disadvantaged students the most. Already, many students’ potential grades are severely underestimated due to their ethnic and socioeconomic background. Research by UCL’s Institute of Education in 2016 showed that, over the course of three years, “disadvantaged students are more likely to be under-predicted than their more advantaged counterparts”. Predicted grades are already an unfair hurdle considering they are the main facet of university applications. Now that these teacher assessments will not only be translated into predicted grades, but actual A-level qualifications, it is clear who will suffer even more from this already biased system.

These fears have been confirmed through the SQA results in Scotland. Students from the poorest postcodes had their Highers (the Scottish equivalent of A-levels) downgraded “from a pass to a fail at more than twice the rate of their most affluent peers”. This rightfully provoked outrage among Scottish students, with many of them taking to the streets and even the social media app Tiktok to protest these grades. Reliance on the historical attainment of a school, a factor that will also be considered for A-levels, means that students are having their potential slashed because of reasons out of their control.

Nicola Sturgeon apologises for handling of Scottish exam results

There is an appeals system and the opportunity to resit exams in September rather than next year. However, given that results day is in mid-August, there’s little time for students to prepare if they were expecting better grades. Most likely, by the time resits are taken, university places will have lapsed. Some of my friends who were unsure they would get the grades they need today have spent the last couple months in a state of uncertainty about whether they should be studying. Indeed, for some pupils, it is not financially feasible to take a year out. Jobs are hard to find due to the pandemic; funding a gap year is a privilege not afforded to everyone.

A lot of students would agree that the A-level requirement of cramming two years of content into a few hours of exams is inherently flawed, and Covid-19 has amplified that flaw. After all, for the past few years, pupils have only had one chance to demonstrate their abilities on a moderated and unbiased scale. Not only is this stressful for all students, no matter what educational background, but it is also genuinely damaging for those who are most disadvantaged. If we want to increase university access for the poorest pupils, individual attainment should be what decides their future, not the historical attainment of their school.

Today, I want the Department for Education to understand and acknowledge that not all the backlash we’re seeing is due to the pandemic itself, but rather the problems with A-levels that the pandemic has finally shed light on. I hope the message sinks in.

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