A-Level Playing Field: Why Results Day Is a Source of Misery and Chaos

Results Day
CC Image courtesy of comedy_nose on Flickr

A-level results are due to be released tomorrow morning. Some will spend the day celebrating success. Others will spend the day celebrating the end of their formal education journey. And a good portion – expected to number in excess of 50,000 – will spend the day scouring the UCAS website and making fraught phone calls to universities as the Clearing process begins in earnest.

The word ‘Clearing’ ought to have positive connotations – clearing the air, clear skies – but in an educational context, it conveys failure and arouses images of the dregs of further education being swept into one-time polytechnics around the country. Even the proper noun’s donning of a capital letter makes it appear ominous. Of course, it also represents a second chance and there will be courses to be filled at the prestigious Russell Group universities so the official line to anyone who narrowly missed out on their first choice is not to despair. On the other hand, we wouldn’t wish the mania of Clearing on even our most apathetic sixth-former; in fact, especially not on them.

Navigating Clearing

Those whom it was a miracle they completed their UCAS admission forms in the first place will not have done any of the preparatory homework that has been possible since the end of June, when a list of still-available courses could be viewed. Being ready should not be mistaken for being pessimistic. As the Studential Guide to Clearing counsels, ‘when you call up an institution about a particular course you will have the advantage of knowing something about it and will sound like a much more attractive candidate than someone who had never even heard of the course until 15 minutes before ringing them… the more informed you are, the less likely you will be to make a bad choice on the spur of the moment.’

The idea of paying £9,250 per annum on a bad decision is enough to fill anyone with dread. Loath as we are to apply the language of consumerism to education, many impulse purchases will be made today. Despite the eye-watering costs, the market remains strong, with record rates of 18-year-olds applying to universities in England. UCAS statistics show that 236,350 school leavers – 40% of the total – had applied for university by this year’s deadline of 30 June. On top of this are 17,500 older applicants who have taken time out for a multitude of reasons and could make their case for a place with results in hand, bypassing altogether the pandemonium of Clearing.

Another way to avoid Clearing is to accept an unconditional offer, which was an option open to another record number of students if the trend of the last few years has continued into 2019. 23% of applicants received an unconditional offer in 2018, as opposed to just 1% back in 2013. The year-on-year increase since then has been credited to market forces and an increased competition among universities: at the same time as the population of 18-year-olds is falling, caps on the number of students that an institution can admit have been lifted. It makes more sense for the universities to attract students through unconditional offers than reduced tuition fees but Sally Hunt, former general secretary of the University and College Union, doesn’t see the “bums on seats” approach as good news for anyone: “The proliferation of unconditional offers is detrimental to the interests of students and it is time the UK joined the rest of the world in basing university offers on actual achievements instead of on guesswork.”

A Different Route

How many performance management targets have taken a hit from the demotivation that naturally afflicts most A-level students with an unconditional offer? A chorus of teachers and lecturers have loudly decried their rise. The good news for everyone except lackadaisical students looking for an easy route is that a review into the admissions process has been launched by Universities UK. Due next spring, the report will examine whether it would be fairer to move away from a system based on predicted exam grades. Despite the time pressures involved, the idea of changing to “post-qualification admissions” is nothing new; it was advocated by an inquiry carried out under the last Labour government and is common practice across the rest of the world. Figures published by the Sutton Trust charity show that almost three-quarters of students do not achieve their overly-optimistic predicted grades, which rather makes a mockery of the existing system. There is also a contrary sociological argument which states that disadvantaged youngsters routinely undersell themselves due to a lack of confidence and don’t even apply for courses that their subsequent results might have allowed them to enter.

So, here’s hoping that all your students fulfil their potential and results day brings happy faces all round. Back in the real world, however, right now there are thousands of concerned 18-year-olds (not to mention their parents, carers and (former) teachers) fretting over what their future holds. Surely it would be better if this anxiety were not squeezed into one tumultuous day and potentially life-changing decisions were instead made with clear foresight?

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