A line of teenagers, an orderly British queue outside of a fusty gymnasium, eyes glinting with anticipation, a year building up to this moment. A concert? Boarding a flight to Magaluf? No, this is a queue for a secondary school or college examination.
Some find this moment joyous: “Finally, I can show off my talent of learning a textbook, my ability to apply said knowledge, and I’ll get a thrill for beating the clock!” For others, this moment is highly anxiety-inducing: sweaty palm and heart palpitation territory. I am someone who falls into the latter category. It is a surprise I am even writing this piece, because the mere discussion of a test can reduce me to tears. For this exact reason, when the A-Level exam results debacle first happened, I turned a blind eye. I'm usually rigorously engaged in the news cycle but for this, I signed off.
The ubiquity of the conversation soon meant I couldn't ignore it and it became apparent the narrative was primarily focused on A* students losing their hallowed places at Oxbridge. Of course, these pupils make great newspaper headlines and editors would be aghast at running a story about a C-grade student or a middling institution, but why should they be any less important?
The view that top-tier universities and A-grades are the be-all and end-all is belittling and unrealistic. It is something I still battle with today. Despite my current accolades, I still find it hard to be proud of myself and the niggling thought persists: “but what about my lack of A’s and A*’s in school?” That was five years ago.
But the dichotomy between my coursework and exam grades was huge – a reflection of the pain exams inflicted on me, often ensuing mental blocks when I opened a paper. My secondary school – a girls' secondary Academy, where we were the first cohort to be non-fee-paying – believed in me, pushed me and yes, maybe, cosseted me. I achieved to the very best of my abilities but decided to move for sixth form…in search of boys – why else!
It was there that I realised some of my new teachers didn’t understand how I worked. As a result – at least, it appeared that way – they failed to believe I was able to perform, despite taking all subjects where I’d received an A grade at GCSE-level. And it was that immense pressure of applying to university with high-stake academic selection coupled with what felt like a huge academic transition from the previous year, that I believe led to me getting C’s on results day.
I know I am a good writer; why else would I choose to embark on a career in journalism? I am also a voracious reader, and friends often ask me for book recommendations. With this in mind, I should’ve thrived in English Literature at A-Level. The exam was closed book, meaning you’ve got to memorise hundreds of quotes from the novel to then regurgitate in your essays to bolster your argument... So thrive I did not.
But as a C-grade student, I still managed to go to university. I chose a course with zero exams and away from the comparison of my A-grade friends. I slowly learnt to value myself and get over my exam complex – which is not to say I found my degree a walk in the park. When I found it tough, that overarching sickening A-Level feeling returned. But still, I graduated with a First.
Who knows if I would have got a place at university without coursework to buoy me? My French coursework, for example, was three whole grades higher than the one I received in my exam. But once you leave the fusty gym and head to university or an office, do exams stand you in good stead? Did coursework not encourage us to read broadly and reference other works? Let's not forget, those skills are generally the meat of a degree.
Michael Gove implemented the all-or-nothing education system during his time as education secretary between 2010 and 2014. This meant that the AS-level examinations and most coursework were scrapped. Your final qualification is now assessed entirely on a couple of exams at the end of a two-year course. Why has learning been boiled down to a giant memory test? Letters on a page should not be the bellwether for teenager’s futures and the whole farce has shown how ridiculous our education system is. The university system is hugely socially stratified; as a result, it thrives on meritocracy.
We know that Gove and Gavin Williamson’s policies have driven injustices. High-achieving pupils in historically lower-achieving schools have had their future stymied. While Williamson has now taken a U-turn on delivering algorithm grades, it is too little too late, pupils have had university offers rescinded.
For those with dyspraxia, dyslexia and other learning difficulties, universities can be great opportunities to enrol on a practical or creative degree or one suited to their needs. And I’m sure, for many people, the chance to go to an "average" university will afford the escape from a life or a city they are desperate to leave. Accepting Bristol over Oxford isn’t such a hardship as someone’s last hope of heading to university at all.
Once I got to uni, no one asked about my A-Level grades again. The fact we are streamed, sorted and judged on high-stake exams is nonsense and the pandemic has finally exposed Gove’s choice to make them impossible as absurd.
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