A level policy decisions left disadvantaged students devastated

Alice Dee was in Tower Hamlets for A level results day - and was shocked by what she saw.

This year I spent A level results day supporting students in an Access Project school in Tower Hamlets where I saw at first hand the effect of last minute policy decisions.

We have known since 19 March, when schools were closed and exams were cancelled, that results day and supporting our students to get into university was going to be very different this year.

This is the first time we’ve ever had to deal with a results day based on calculated grades, during a pandemic and when university admissions systems are designed to compete to recruit the “best” students globally. We knew it was going to be complicated when the process and guidance was repeatedly changed, and particularly when Scottish Highers results were released last week.

What struck me the most on the day was how precarious the individual students’ outcomes were, and how based on things beyond their control: their school, teachers, characteristics, firm and insurance university policies. Students had no control over the grades they were awarded today, and for many of them, the grades they received were much lower than they expected.

Tell your story

I worked with one student who said he was “actually excited” about getting his results and getting into his firm choice – a highly selective London university to study maths. He was a straight-A student who got 8s and 9s in his GCSEs and applied to university with A/A* predicted grades. When he got his results he found that, like nearly all his maths classmates, his grades had been downgraded and he hadn’t got his firm or insurance place at university.

That student was therefore in Clearing. And for those in Clearing it was confusing. Universities were slow to make choices, with lots of students still not having university decisions confirmed when UCAS Track, the online system that allows you to to check the progress of your university application, updated and Clearing lines, opened.

If you’re in Clearing (and Track is actually telling you that you are) it’s an intricate strategy about which universities and courses you contact, and the order you call them in and how long you stay on hold while losing time to call other institutions.

When you get through, it genuinely is luck of the draw who you get on the phone, how seriously they take your case, and who they will transfer you through to. An important word here is “case”; applicants have to sell their story. Students need to be able to articulate in a nice professional way what their situation is: grades, subjects, the results picture in their school for each subject. And all of this to a stranger on the end of the phone just a few minutes after they’ve received results and/or university decisions that they’re devastated about.

For many students, the smallest differences in how their school is operating on results day can affect if they can get into university – also let’s not forget that operating a school for results day under social distancing guidelines is no mean feat.

For example, is the school even open for results day? If so, is it in time for clearing lines opening (around 8 am)? Are there phones and laptops that work for you to access the info and make the calls? And this year particularly, it was vital for schools to have quickly analysed their results and made a call on how fair they felt they were, and whether they are going to appeal.

Decisions need to be made about whether to tell students their submitted grades, and whether to tell students and universities about students’ mock results. All of these things could be the difference between securing a place at a preferred university or not. And all of these things vary by school.

Stuck in limbo

So imagine you’ve been through all of that, to then be told by admissions departments that they can’t or won’t lower entry requirements, tell you to call back when your appealed grade has been confirmed and that places have been taken by “higher-quality” candidates.

This was the situation many disadvantaged students found themselves in on Thursday, including another student that I was working with, whose grades were much lower than she’d expected or been predicted. She had been promised an appeal by her school and will get the results of the appeal by 7 September. But until then, her university options are very limited.

She was in Clearing, and all the courses that she was interested in were set on pretty high entry requirements. Many universities were unwilling to consider the extraordinary situation these students were facing, as they were able to fill their places with students with higher grades.

We all know why those places have been filled and why those candidates have higher grades: it’s because they’re at “better schools” that mean they’ll have been given good grades. And if they miss their offers they’ve got teachers and parents with the knowledge and resources to appeal and overturn those admissions decisions.

For so many students a couple of grades being downgraded has a huge impact on the universities they can get into the opportunities higher education can give them. Our work at The Access Project is about being there to support our students to navigate a complicated and scary process that can be simpler if there’s an expert to help you. Results day is always a minefield for disadvantaged students, but this year’s was the worst I’ve experienced. It’s so sad those opportunities have been taken away by a system that could have been supportive, but instead was unfair.

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