Our downgraded A-level students deserve much better - Christa Ackroyd

I honestly can’t remember my A-level grades. I can, however, still remember that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach the day they were out as I dawdled to school convinced I had failed them all. I hadn’t.

The exam results brought good news for some A-level students, but not for others. (JPIMedia).

If I am honest, I could have done better but they were good enough to get me indentured in my first job at the Halifax Evening Courier. And I never thought about them again. Until this week, some 40-odd years later.

Because one thing’s for sure. My life and a career I have loved would have been very different if I had been forced to accept the chaotic grading assessments dished out to students this week. I would have probably failed.

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You see, I am good at exams and lucky enough to relish the kind of pressure they bring. But this shambolic system of awarding exam grades for exams never sat, which appears to have been chopped and changed until the eleventh hour, would have been a disaster for me. Just as it has been for thousands upon thousands of young people who, whether they got the grades they needed or not, will feel the effects of this year for decades to come unless we accept they have just suffered the most stressful period in the history of education. And cut them some slack.

It has been stressful for them and they have suffered. Cut off from their classmates, what perhaps seemed, to some, little more than an extended holiday to begin with turned into a nightmare for many.

I know parents who have praised teachers for setting work and keeping in touch with their pupils. But I know others concerned about the lack of lessons. I know of pupils who have become isolated, even agoraphobic.

There are others that have tried their hardest but have struggled without the camaraderie, discipline and competition of being in the classroom. And as for parents trying to balance working from home with supervising lessons, I simply don’t know how they juggled it.

And still they don’t know whether their children will be back at school in September. Which they won’t be, unless the teaching unions and Government sit down and work out how that can be achieved.

What an unholy mess. And what a dreadful year for our young people.

Firstly the Government wanted schools to reopen in June. That never came to pass. By the end of that month research by University College London suggested two million pupils had done little or no school work since March.

A poll of head teachers expressed concern that at least a third of pupils were disengaged with their learning. Twenty per cent of students were being assigned four pieces of work a day. In the North East that figure was just nine per cent. One in five children from poorer families entitled to free school meals didn’t have access to a computer compared with three per cent of children at private schools.

And now this debacle with A-levels. Heaven knows what will happen with GCSE results next week, which will be subject to the same “standardisation process” in a year that has been anything but standard.

As I understand it, pupils can choose to either like it or lump it, make an appeal or take the grades they were given in their mock exams. That would have been me scuppered then.

I failed every one of my mocks so being able to choose those grades would have been pretty useless. Then, as I suspect now, mocks were marked harder by teachers, who used them as a wake-up call for those of us who needed to buckle down when we took the exams for real five months later.

No such luxury this year for those left reeling by the most complex system of measuring their achievements that could possibly have been invented.

Almost 40 per cent of them have had the grades given by teachers assessing what they could have achieved downgraded.

And I don’t understand why, especially when in Scotland Nicola Sturgeon had announced the week before that the computer programme applied to those predictions had been a failure and affected disproportionately the least well off in the poorest performing schools.

So why do we do virtually the same? No wonder Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said sorry. Well sorry isn’t really good enough when Ministers have had since April to work this out.

So what if the teachers were over generous with predicted grades, does that really matter when we have a generation caught up in the most uncertain period since the war? The jobs market is shrinking, the recession is biting and still the pandemic is not over.

I will not trot out the cliches of those who didn’t do well in exams but went on to have successful careers. Telling a teenager who has just been given grades lower than those they were predicted that it won’t matter in the long run is not only patronising, it is also untrue.

When I was at school fewer than 50 per cent stayed on for sixth form. Going to university was not the prerequisite for getting a good job it is today. So no wonder young people who now have to beg for a place after disappointing results for exams they never actually took are so distraught.

To each and every one of you, I am sorry you have had to go through this. I hope and pray you can return to school in September if that is what you planned to do. If other countries can manage it so can we. Because, let us remember, the future of our country and its recovery will depend on our young people.

It is now our job to restore their confidence, not destroy it altogether.

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Sincerely. Thank you.

James Mitchinson