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10 August 2021

Covid Cohort: How do A-level students feel about results day 2021?

On A-level results day this year, nearly 45 per cent of entries were awarded A or A* grades. The New Statesman asks school leavers, is this fair?

By Eleanor Peake

It’s been a difficult two years for sixth form students. Since March 2020 the majority of A-level education has been conducted online, without constant teacher supervision. In November 2020 Covid-19 infection rates forced more than 500,000 school children to self-isolate during term time  a situation that continued until the end of the school year in the summer.

Then there was the question of exams. Uncertainty about grading left many Year 13 students anxious about university placements, with ChildLine reporting a dramatic spike in students calling about the stress of their grades, up from 861 between April and June 2020 to 1,812 over the same period this year.

With results out today, the new grading system, which was focused on mock exams and coursework throughout the year, has resulted in almost 45 per cent of entries being awarded an A or A*. These inflated grades have left around 150,000 students who missed their required grades or did not receive offers from a university scrambling for a fixed number of places.

The New Statesman spoke to A-level students across the country about the pressures of lockdown education, grade inflation and what they wish had been done differently.

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Rebecca, 18, London

“I think it’s quite good in a way that our grades are coming from my teachers, but obviously my worry is that everyone[‘s results are] quite high so I’m a little bit more worried about the whole competition. I don’t want to be tainted as the person who got an A in 2021. I’d like people to think I was an A student because I deserved it. I think it could be quite difficult to prove that I do deserve good grades. The past two years have been really hard and a whole new way of learning but I think the biggest challenge we’re going to face is that people will question us, no matter what grade you got. There’s just going to be this massive question hanging over our heads forever: did we deserve it?”

William, 18, Oxford

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“I think the fact that it was so badly handled last year has increased anxiety this year. I was really lucky that I wasn’t part of the algorithm stress last year but, yeah, I am still really, really angry. That’s where most of my nerves have come. It’s been a worry because the government has always done things too late and have kept changing things around… I was worried that something might happen two or three days ago, where they decided we were gonna have to change everything at the last minute, especially because they acted too late to begin with, they cancelled exams quite late on. It’s been a lot of pressure and uncertainty.”

Meg, 18, Buckinghamshire

“The pandemic has just revealed the inequalities that were already there rather than new ones and I do think it will have had an uneven impact on people’s grades. It makes me angry, especially because there was a period over Christmas last year when no one knew what we were doing. We were supposed to have mock exams in the first couple of weeks back in January and we didn’t know if we should be revising or if they were cancelled. We didn’t know if we were going to just be off for another few months. I feel like all the decisions regarding schools have been made at the last possible second. A-level and GCSE students have kind of been kicked to the curb a little bit in terms of the government taking responsibility. So yeah, I feel like we’ve been betrayed.”

Ryan, 18, Cheshire 

“I’ve been frustrated with some of the decisions made by the government. I think they’ve handled it really poorly. I think a lot of colleges have been left behind a little bit by the pandemic. So obviously I’m glad to be done with it but I think in the future, I will look back at the past few years with maybe a little bit of frustration or, maybe, maybe regret. I also don’t think education has really harnessed how good online learning can be. I think there is a lot more we can do with it and I think that should be a focus in the next few years.”

Fraser, 18, Harrogate 

“During my A-levels, I spent half the time learning from home and half the time in school. I had to self-isolate during my mock exams, which were used to figure out our final grade. It’s those things like getting Covid that are really out of your control that can have a big impact on the brain… Also I think, doing stuff online separates students a lot. I’m very lucky to have a desk in my room… but the idea of not having that would have made things so much harder to do the work, especially in lockdown. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic I think my grades would have been better. There wouldn’t have been the same sort of constant change at very short notice and there wouldn’t have been as many unexpected hurdles.”

Lucy, 17, London

“Given the circumstances I’m happy my teachers have graded me rather than the algorithm, because I think that was really unfair, but the hardest part of these past few years has been maintaining focus. I don’t want to say that I haven’t been working hard, because that sounds a bit awful but if you know the exams will be easier or that you might not have an exam at all, you’re not necessarily going to work. It’s been quite difficult to maintain the drive to revise as much as I would.”