Results’ day blues

For the last 9 years I have been a VIth form tutor and have approached A level results with a mixture of apprehension and excitement.  Interestingly, as my eldest son reached Year 13, I found the day to be a whole new experience.  I am not saying that the system is broken, but I do have deep concerns about the whole process of turning results into places at further education establishments.

I will try to explain.

  1. The process begins at school.  Predicted grades are produced by a school based on AS results.  Even at this stage, the discrepancies between schools in applying the data is huge.  The various models available – ALPS, ALYS and so on, each provide slightly differing data and then there is the “league table factor” which means that many schools don’t want to seem too harsh in case their VIth form gets a reputation for not producing a sufficient quantity of University entrants each year.  At the school I have just left, the benchmark last year related to UMS achieved at AS.  If a student scored in excess of 50% of the UMS spread for a particular grade, we predicted 1 grade in excess of their AS result as their A2 level.  NO exceptions, and no notice taken of any potential resit.
  2. This means that there were some in the upper levels who saw their ABB (say) remain unchanged and I have little issue with this.  I have always urged realism over idealism when filling in a UCAS form and repeat a mantra that there is no point getting an offer from WarwImperiUrham if there is no realistic chance of achieving the outcome in the summer.  Besides, there might be the option of trading up if there is really unexpected success.  The issue is greater at the CDE end of the market however.
  3. The issue here is that few Universities allow course entry requirements that are this low.  This can been as a Good Thing in the sense that if University is meant to be the highest point of formal education, all students should be intellectually able to cope with the demands of an undergraduate course.  However the current trend seems to suggest that courses are being rated by the subject of study, rather than the possible quality of the establishment.  This means that the student who is predicted CDD has little chance of finding any courses at all which fall within this ambit, let alone finding 5 of them to populate the UCAS form.  Time and again I have railed against a student insisting on applying to courses wanting ABB from a CDE base.  “Don’t be silly”, I say. “they will probably refuse you and even if they accept you, you are not going to get those grades…”  “Ah”, the reply comes, “then I will get in through clearing!”
  4. And they do.  To courses often way in excess of their actual grades attained.  Universities being eager to fill places suddenly open up courses hitherto requiring Bs and As to students attaining Ds and Cs.  And I am very grateful, but confused.
  5. If a course is of sufficient quality or complexity that students require ABB in November, how can tutors countenance entrance to students attaining CDD in August?  Either the original entrance requirement has been inflated as the universities try to justify the now almost uniform 9000 tuition fee or this is simply a way to reduce applicants now that universities do not interview every applicant, as they did back in the dark ages.  However, how does a lower level student work this system?  All messages through the application process tell them that they are not good enough, not just for Oxford or Bristol, but also for Portsmouth or Keele.  Yet, in August, a well placed phone call on achievement of their prediction suddenly opens up courses to which they were unable to apply.  Are we setting them up to fail by this practice, or is there simply a sensible recalibration of what is actually required to study particular courses at particular universities?
  6.  This article shows a drop out rate in excess of 27,000 students in the first year of their study in 2013.  A mixture of a misguided (?) drive to get in excess of 50% of school leavers to enter further education is one reason for this – many simply were not suited to further academic study for a wide range of reasons, but it also begs the question whether the slightly bizarre arrangements relating to entry via clearing outlined above are a contributory factor.  It seems to me that the inflation of entry requirement seen anecdotally in the last few years (no doubt someone has the figures) and discussed in this article from 2010 partly as a response to perceptions of dumbed down A level results has resulted in a curious gap in the UCAS application process: At the top level there is relative parity between prediction and requirement for most Russell Group courses, but at the lower end students are finding very few courses to which they can apply in the first place, confident of attaining the grades required.  Simply raising the prediction is no answer to this, it is better to find a way to accurately reflect the needs of study, allied to the ability of the student.  With so few interviews taking place, there is little chance for a University to read behind the data and actually match a student to a course.
  7. This has concerned me for a while, but this year it came home.  My eldest has got a place of study, via clearing and I am thrilled and thoroughly confused by what was a tiresome process – offered a place through UCAS at his chosen university at BBB on CDD prediction.  Attained CDD – brilliant .  Anyone who knows the Ginger Ninja will know just what this means.  No interviews, he actually rang the university to ask if there was an error – “why did you offer a place on a course so much higher than my prediction?” he asked, and was told to be positive.  He was.  He missed the entry requirement and was rejected around 3.00pm on results day.  By 5.00 he had been accepted at a course which he had seen in the Autumn and ignored because of the ABB requirement. He had a 10 minute phone call and is now an excited pre-undergraduate.  I hope it will go smoothly, and believe him to be a good bet for success.  However I still do not begin to understand how he has got onto a course so much in excess of his results.  I am thrilled that he has, but it really does make little sense.  I hope against hope that he does not become another statistic for the wrong reasons