Everything is different this year. The concept of examination results without examinations sound like one of those maddening logic puzzles or a difficult philosophical conundrum. Of course, it is neither: later this week, tens of thousands of A-level students will be getting examination results for examinations they did not sit. Instead, Ofqual, the examination regulator, has used a complicated algorithm and a host of data – including pupils’ prior attainment data, teacher predicted grades and school’s historic performance – to make individual awards. That’s tough for everyone, but most of all for the students themselves. Every year, in the middle of August, newspaper websites and TV bulletins are full of photographs of happy smiling successful A-level students celebrating success – the cameras are politely directed away from those desperately unhappy about their results. This year is different: the results are the product of a mathematical exercise.
They are no less important. We should all, I think, spare a thought this week for the emotions of all eighteen-year olds getting results. They worked no less hard than their predecessors; they invested no less emotional energy in their studies; the outcome is no less important for them. They are the victims of COVID-19. We should all offer them our congratulations and support – whatever the outcome.
For the University, of course, A-level results day is incredibly important. It is the day on which we can confirm offers of places to study here, confirm an offer of the place which will open new horizons and new possibilities. It’s also the day on which our Clearing telephone lines are exceptionally busy: students looking to confirm their place, to talk about their grades in relation to the offer we have made, to talk about their future. I’ve always found results day an emotional and engaging experience. It draws colleagues together from right across the University as volunteers on the telephone lines, it puts team work absolutely at the core of our work, and it is, every year, important for the University and for the futures of the young people on the other end of the telephone lines. It’s also an extremely busy day – starting early in the morning and going on into the early evening: tiring and demanding for everyone involved. I always thrive on the buzz of the day and the opportunity to work with such a diverse range of colleagues in a common enterprise.
This year, Clearing and Confirmation will be different. It’s going to be run as a largely remote operation – our call centre will not be in Aspect Court but dispersed in homes. There will be a small core team in Aspect Court – I will be there too – but most of the activity will be across the homes we have all been working from for twenty-three weeks. It will be different – but it is no less important — no less important, especially, to the young people calling on the phone. A huge amount of work has gone on across so many teams – academic departments, admissions, digital technology services, marketing and communications, estates, and so on – to make this year’s Clearing and Confirmation possible in remote operation.
I suspect that the same anxieties will be there for prospective students – about their grades and their futures, about success and failure. But there’ll be something else too. The uncertainties created by the economic fall-out of COVID-19, the apprehensions they and their families have about jobs and security, the concerns about what the future, including as a university student, will feel like. We will need to encourage and sympathise, listen and engage as we always do, but, this year with the added emotions which go with these very unusual examination results, this remarkably unusual context, and the doubts about what the next few months hold.
Every year on A-level results day, futures are changed for large numbers of young people. There’s unalloyed good news and disappointing news; there are hopes and fears; there is excitement and doubt, there is joy and dejection. All those things will be there this year, but my guess is that beyond everything else, the eighteen-year olds we encounter will want some reassurance, some extra care and, yes, some love too.