‘You didn’t have much support’: A-level students share their experiences

Schools across the UK are celebrating record-breaking exam results, after almost 45% of A-level entries were awarded top grades.

Five A-level students tell the Guardian about the challenges of studying in a year disrupted by the pandemic and their experience of teacher-assessed grades.

Molly Wilson, 18, a student at President Kennedy School in Coventry, is going to Cambridge to study medicine after achieving four A* in Biology, Chemistry, History and Maths. Despite her success, she worries that she has not earned her grades due to the unusual circumstances of this year’s A-level assessments.

“I was more than happy with the grades I got as they were even higher than expected,’ she says. “But I feel I definitely didn’t do as much work as people who earned the same grades in previous years.

“It’s a shame I never got to sit an A-level paper but I don’t think I would have got the same grades under the circumstances [van die pandemie] as I could have otherwise. In some ways it was less stressful. You didn’t have the stress at the end [of the year] of proving yourself in the exams. But you also didn’t have any of the fun stuff of a normal year of teaching and there was the constant stress of Covid.

I think it was fairer to have teacher assessments. But it does feel a bit like I haven’t truly earned my grades and I’m slightly underprepared for university. I’m worried there will be content we didn’t cover [this past year] in my university course.”

Amy Cross, 18, from Coventry, is overjoyed after achieving significantly better A-level grades than expected. She has already accepted an offer from the University of York, her first choice, and will be off to study computer science in September.

“I was told by one of my teachers that I would be lucky to get a B in their subject, so I was determined to prove them wrong and achieved 3 A*s in the end!”

Cross says getting top grades in all three of her A-levels – maths, computer science and chemistry – was “definitely totally unexpected”.

“I was really worried. Laas jaar, with the algorithm, a lot of people had their grades lowered. Gelukkig, I was quite confident that my teachers would give me grades that reflect my potential.

“We found it quite hard to study alone during the first lockdown. But later on our teachers began talking more to us and checking in, and we found our feet and caught up pretty quickly. I’m really happy.”

Faseeha, 18, got into the University of Westminster, her first choice, after getting an A and two B grades.

Despite her success she is concerned that determining grades by teacher assessment has been unfair.

“I was a bit disappointed with a B in History as I had got an A the whole year round and received the best grade in the class for my coursework," sy sê. “My peers who I helped with the subject ended up getting higher [grades] than me. I do believe some teachers were biased.”

Faseeha says the past year was challenging in terms of mental health as it involved “a lot of independent learning. You didn’t have that much support.”

She is waiting to hear whether her university course will be taught online or in person before deciding whether or not to start in September or defer for a year.

“I don’t want to go through online lessons once more. I think mental health wise, [studying my A-levels] was a really tough period. When you’re going to uni, you’re going to be alone [if studying online]. I don’t want to pay £9,000 to do that.”

Duncan, 18, from Bristol, is going to Oxford University to study physics after achieving four A*s in physics, chemistry, maths and geography.

He is relieved that this year’s students were not graded by algorithm as happened last year, provoking a crisis after questions were raised as to the accuracy and fairness of the results.

“It seems that as someone who attended a state school, there may have been a greater chance that my results would be downgraded by an algorithm.”

He also defended this year’s record results from accusations that teachers inflated their students’ grades.

“It is ridiculous to claim that this year’s exam grades are meaningless or worthless. We had to learn much of the syllabus independently in 2020, during the first round of school closures – unlike previous cohorts who sat formal exams.

“My only concern is that future employers will believe that we did not sit ‘proper’ exams like other years.”

Ash, 17, from Birmingham, is taking a gap year after struggling with online learning during the pandemic and catching Covid.

The student, who has dyslexia, needed to attain ABB or BBB for her first and insurance university places but received Cs in maths and chemistry and a D in sociology.

“Spending results day sick and in bed with my curtains drawn feels like a tragically appropriate way to end quite a hellish and disappointing year," sy sê. “My brother has Covid as well. My sister got Covid, and my great-uncle died from Covid in January. It was greatly on our minds as a family.”

Ash says she struggled to adapt to this year’s assessment, which was more stressful due to her dyslexia. “Online learning has been really difficult. It was difficult to keep track. We were all meant to have our sociology exam in school but after one boy tested positive we were told to do it at home. But I couldn’t do it remotely as I don’t type fast enough, so my parents arranged with the school for me to come in. The teachers were really supportive but it felt chaotic. I had a panic attack and instantly knew my performance for the rest of the exam period would be poor.”

She is now taking a gap year to figure out her next steps. “Even if I got the grades, going to university in this uncertain climate and the prospect of more online teaching fills me with dread.”

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