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  • Writer's pictureBella Rawson

A-Levels 2020 - What the Hell is Going On?

Updated: May 5, 2020

On the 18th of March, it was announced that all schools in England would be closing for the foreseeable future, and as result of that decision, GCSEs and A-Levels scheduled for May and June would not take place.

From the second it was broadcast, Twitter was awash with polarised voices - lots were ecstatic, many were upset. The majority were just confused. In the space of five minutes I saw no less than a hundred messages asking what the hell was happening. Nobody even knew if we would still be awarded grades.

At first, I was completely baffled. There was Boris Johnson, saying these words, waving his hands, explaining to the nation what would happen, and my brain could barely process it. I'd known schools were going to close - if you thought anything else by that point you were just an idiot - but I hadn't expected for him to also say that our exams were cancelled. And I certainly didn't expect him to just drop the bombshell and leave.

There was no follow up, no 'more information will be available soon', just the suffocating, crushing knowledge that the exams I'd worked so hard to sit weren't taking place, and nobody knew what I'd have to do instead. My mum was just watching me quietly, no doubt wondering how I was taking it.

If you hadn't already guessed, I burst into tears.

Those next few days was the most confusing time I think any Year 13 or Year 11 has had in their entire lives. There were multiple theories - we would have to resit the year, universities would take us without any grades - and though my rational brain knew they were just rumors, my anxiety ridden stupid brain was willing to take anything at face value and spiral into an even bigger state of confusion.

I think the fact that there was no clarification until we were well into April didn't help. Those who were excited about not having to sit exams didn't really seem to care, but for those of us who were upset by the news, we were constantly checking the internet for even the smallest of slivers of information. We needed to know, and we needed to know now.

Fortunately, advice was finally published by the government around a week and a half into April, and ever since I've had multiple people (mainly family members looking for polite conversation on the phone) ask me what's going on. At least now we know what our options are, anyway.

Automatic Awarding of Grades

The government's main ambition was that all students due to take exams this year would still receive their grades, and they wanted those grades to be in line with what they would roughly have expected to have achieved had they actually sat the papers. In doing so, these grades would be indistinguishable from grades of previous years, and the so called 'corona cohort' would only be identifiable to an employer if the applicant chose to tell them themselves.

Naturally, there were a lot of questions about how the government expected to achieve this. Indeed, many people did not believe it would a respresentative process. In trying to fix that, the Department for Education stated that awarded grades would be based on a combination of teacher assessment and prior attainment. For those doing GCSEs, that would mean extrapolating SATs results and using any previous qualifications they had achieved. For those at A-Level, that would mean GCSE results.

There was, and still is, a lot of panic over teacher assessment. The government stated that this would take place via a careful assimilation of test scores of individual modules, including mocks. The inclusion of mocks set a lot of people, including myself, into a panic; most students don't tend to bother with mocks, even though we're encouraged to by our teachers, because we don't see much of a need for them. Indeed, our mocks occurred in January, the first 2 weeks back after Christmas, during which I and many friends had attended lots of interviews for university, and many had completed additional work experience. In short, very few of us actually put in any effort.

I'm still quite worried, therefore, about what my grades will look like, as my mock results were less than stellar. It's perfectly fine for the people who did have time to revise or who weren't physically exhausted from trekking up and down the country over and over again, but for those of us who just wanted a rest, the January placement of mocks felt like a kick in the teeth. The majority of people who have mocks have them after February half term, or at the end of their course - if this was the case with us, we wouldn't even have started them due to the school closure!

So, if it wasn't already obvious, you can see why a lot of us are worried.

Exams In September.

The government also stated that those who wished to could take their exams in September, and have the grades awarded in that period replace those awarded in August. In turn, universities would defer the applicant until the following year, and honour their offer of a place provided the right grade conditions were met.

Though this is an attractive option, it throws up many questions that we've still not had the answers to. For example, if I achieve better in the August results than the resits, will I be allowed to keep the August results or will the September resits over rule them? And if I'm an independent candidate who taught myself the content, how will I assess my work? Will I have to sit the September exams if I want a grade?

Long story short, this option is fraught with questions, a leaves many in less than ideal situations.

A-Levels in 2021

The final option is that candidates can choose to resit the year, and take their exams with the class of 2021. This would mean giving up university places and reapplying for the following in take. Whilst this is likely to be the least popular out of the three options, I wonder what the impact will be on government funding.

As a school leaver, you are funded for 3 years of post-secondary education by the government. After this time, you will be expected tp pay for the cost yourself. Therefore, does this mean that for candidates who would then be entering their fourth year through no fault of their own are no longer funded? I imagine the government would have a fight on their hands if they tried to take that route.

I'd also like to think about the impact this will be having on people due to take their exams next year, as well.

At least we, as school leavers, have learnt all the content and all we would need to do is revise it. For those who will take their exams next year, they are being expected to learn this content by themselves, at home, and many of whom will struggled with this. Whether it's because they have to care for families or they simply don't have the correct equipment, it must be acknowledge that students in this cohort will suffer next year if teachers do not intervene when they return to school. I would not have liked to try and teach myself the content of first year, I barely understood the concepts of alkene reactions until one of my chemistry teachers sat down and explained them to me.

I personally feel this should be acknowledged next year in results, and some form of mitigating circumstances should be applied to every individual taking their exams. It is simply not fair for those students to suffer because there's a pandemic going on! In some cases, these exams will result in the highest qualifications some individuals will achieve as they go straight into the work force - we cannot allow their entire future to be affected by something so unexpected.

Whatever happens, I know exams will not be the top priority for a government looking to support a country reeling from the shock of the scale of this pandemic. And nor should they be - not when there's been over a million new claims for universal credit since the start of the lockdown.

But it's vital that we are not forgotten, because ultimately the decisions the government takes now into what happens with our education will affect them in years to come. Leave a whole cohot without appropriate qualifications, and there won't be enough people to fill jobs requiring at least a level 3 education.

I'll be interested to see how this changes in the coming weeks, what safeguards are put into place and whether we are reassured about our fears. I think the biggest thing to remember in the midst of all this is that we are all in the same, crummy situation - you're not alone in your worries, and there's thousands of us losing sleep over it. Just take things step by step, day by day, and remember that these things are out of your control.

Who'd want to be in control of a pandemic, anyway?

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