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A-Levels during a Global Pandemic

Helen MacKenzie

Remember how it felt waiting for A-level results after a tense summer of revision and exams? Well, for this year’s cohort of A-level students the wait is even longer. Rather than showing off their hard work, they have to wait for teachers to give them their grades. It’s a rather anxiety-inducing time. Now, to add to the confusion and uncertainty, imagine one of your university choices has switched your offer from conditional to unconditional. This is the predicament some students currently face. 

As a reminder, on Friday 20th March, schools across the UK closed their doors for the remainder of the academic year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The government has advised A-level students that grades will be awarded from a combination of:  

  1. Previous work, such as GCSEs and mock exams
  2. Coursework
  3. Teachers’ assessments as to what grade would have been awarded if exams had been sat

They have made clear that final grades will not be based on predicted grades. Additionally, any student who wants to contest their final grade can choose to sit an exam whenever exams can take place again (or in summer 2021).

Many students will have been looking forward to collecting results after sitting exams they’ve revised hard for, but their grades can no longer be awarded the traditional way. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

Some universities have responded to the situation by changing conditional offers to unconditional. Subsequently, universities have now been advised that they cannot make new unconditional offers until the beginning of this month, although any existing unconditional offers still stand.

What, exactly, is the motivation behind changing a candidate’s offer from conditional to unconditional? Are universities trying to ensure that they are guaranteed students and fees? This is likely to be one factor. The Guardian has revealed that limits on student numbers in England may be reintroduced; the cap on university admissions was lifted in 2015 by then universities’ minister David Willetts. Universities providing unconditional offers to applicants may be relying on a sense of panic and uncertainty to guarantee that a student accepts. If you couldn’t control your grades from this point on and discovered that competition for places was going to increase dramatically, would you accept any unconditional offer provided to you? Will we see an increase in the number of students taking gap years? Advice to students should remain the same – pick the university best for you, regardless of a change in offer status. An unconditional offer should not change how you feel about a university unless you were already seriously considering it as your firm or insurance choice. 

Universities are rushing to offer students unconditional offers to secure places for the 2020/21 academic year. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

Some critics will undoubtedly bring up the government reforms in 2015 which removed the need for separate AS-levels. Perhaps students and educators could have relied on these had they been available. However, these grades may not have accurately demonstrated a student’s abilities either; readers who sat AS-levels as well as A-levels may remember the stress of having to perform exceptionally well in A-level exams if they underperformed at AS-level.

What does the future hold for the education sector in the coming months? How will grades change between this year’s exceptional circumstances and next year’s hopefully, “business as usual”? Will we see further educational reforms following the current crisis? The current situation not only affects UK A-level students, but also those international students who were going to pursue overseas study. Some universities, particularly those such as LSE and Imperial, rely heavily on international students and the extensive fees they pay. This will naturally influence how aggressive universities may become in attempting to secure more home students.

Students now have a long wait til the summer for their final grades and an even longer wait to step foot onto a university campus. In the meantime, how do social distancing and any further lockdowns impact students who would be celebrating the end of exams, building up their extra-curriculars, or getting a head start on university reading lists? School to university can feel like a big adjustment to most students, but the normalcy of returning to studying could be exactly what current A-level students need to start university on the right foot.

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