With the last envelope collected, torn open and contents revealed, I wanted to reflect on my experiences and thoughts surrounding A-level Results Day 2018. I am not wanting to distract from the fantastic achievements of students and staff, I just think it is a natural point of reflection in the school calendar and I wanted to capture some of the ideas before we move onto the next year.
It is a momentous day for all involved. For students, results day helps them gain entry to the next stage of their lives, for teachers and schools there is some confirmation that we do make a difference. However, we should continue to use results day as a means of asking questions at a systemic level about our post-16 pathways. This is not to distract from individual achievement but the results might help us focus on the why and what questions about education.
It is always a day of mixed emotions but one which always makes me proud to be a teacher. There is no greater honour than to have helped a young person progress onto the next step of their careers and adulthood. The tears and the smiles, the highs and the lows and the race to the phones for clearing continue to make it a memorable day. Results always depend on context and as a classroom teacher, you know how much effort has gone into this day and you are proud of each individual success.
We should celebrate the successes of our students. A-levels are hard, arguably much harder than before. Bravo class of 2018.
The administration. As we move towards a fully linear system can we have some standardised agreement amongst the exam boards on how we will report the results to students (and schools). Is it really too much to ask for the grades (both raw and percentiles) alongside the individual units boundaries and qualification boundaries. A simple A4 sheet for each A-level with ALL the information on would be a godsend. C’mon people let’s make this happen – it should not be difficult to understand your grades and how close you are to the boundaries in each unit.
What about vocational? Around 40% of students take A-levels; a majority of young people study Btecs or vocational qualifications. We should stop treating A-levels as the only post-16 school leaver’s certificate and perhaps celebrate all pupils’ successes?
The pass rates. Nationally and from my own school’s experience there were limited changes in the mix of A-level grades awarded. The FFT datalab have completed a comprehensive review of the data and a microsite which allows you to explore it for yourself, (be still my geeky beating heart!) you can find it here.
There has been considerable stability in the pass rates during this period of substantial curriculum change. On the one hand, this is to be celebrated as ‘comparable outcomes’ has ironed out some of the barriers and obstacles that surround this cohort and the new linear delivery. However, this has led to some very low pass rates. We should be asking more questions about what we are really testing, when 20% will secure an E-grade what did you really know?
The rise of unconditional offers continues to have a corrosive effect on student motivation and academic achievement. Student underperformance is always tricky to unpick and often has many causes but from the few students I supported today, it seems clear that for some the letters in the envelope were of no real consequence. Is a student who only secures one grade at A-level ready for university? Universities should stop making unconditional offers – it is a plague on all our houses.
Clearing continues to be a buyer’s market with an ever-changing and shifting pattern of offers available each day, or even at different times of the day if you call back and speak to someone different. I had a similar experience in Curry’s once where different sales assistants would give me a different best price of the day on different days and that did not feel right either. The mercurial nature of clearing has never felt very transparent and whilst I am happy that students can use it to get into more competitive institutions, I worry about the impact of marketisation on this glorified fish market. Are they being accepted because the university thinks they have sufficient motivation about the subject or are they being accepted for the money they bring to the institution? And for the universities – do they do enough to support these students who enter via clearing with very different academic profiles. What support mechanisms are in place or will they be happy for them to drop out at some later stage? The game being played out between university entry requirements, UCAS and schools predicted grades is a nonsense. There is an arms race between schools and universities as both have been ratcheting up their grades. Both the entry requirements and predictions are unrealistic and no longer helpful as clearing remains a buyer’s market. Someone needs to blink first and end this game. I would like a more realistic, honest and authentic approach by all involved in this process. Ultimately, I would like to see a post-qualification system that gets rid of all the smoke and mirrors.
Boys and girls. The gap in subject-choice and achievement is still there despite the decline in coursework. Girls continue to outperform boys in all subjects except Maths and Chem. We need to do more thinking about this. Whilst I am not sure tokenistic interventions work, there is clearly something still wrong with the gendered nature of subject choice and attainment.
To go to university or not. Perhaps the most interesting reflection is on the changing nature of post-18 pathways.
Last year we had record numbers of students going to university, 32.6 per cent of all 18 year olds – the highest on record. This is to be celebrated, and undoubtedly a good thing in itself. There are clear individual and social benefits to an increasing graduate population. Graduates on the whole earn more than non-graduates. There are non-economic and social gains in terms of better health, longer life expectancy, less depression and obesity, lower rates of criminality and increased likelihood of voting. However, one’s chances of going to university and the type of university you attend are still skewed by class and ethnicity, it is not quite the meritocratic ideal we need it to be. We must do more on this.
Furthermore, there is a failure of strategy at the Government level, an ambiguity in policy which fails to give the sector shape and purpose.
In a marketised HE system, students often have to choose between their head and their heart. Do you choose a subject you love or do you choose a course that has a clear pathway to future success? It was quite different for my generation and those that came before, without the potential debt there was a lot more freedom to choose learning for the sake of learning. The young people I work with today are much more canny than I ever was. They are much more focused on where university will take them and many will eschew the traditional subjects for more applied options. Nonetheless, it still remains a key tool of personal empowerment and social mobility.
The rise of apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships will change the picture considerably as young people realise you can have your cake and eat it as they earn while they learn with no future debts and a work history that will help them move on. However, there is still some snobbery around these options; the academic and vocational divide is alive and well. These pathways are still a bit uncertain as the first few cohorts come through. They need to be high quality and competitive and not seen as second class. We have more work to do hear to change peoples hearts and minds about these alternatives.