Every year — according to Fleet Street legend — the Telegraph prints a lovely photograph on its front page after the A-level results are published. It shows happy, bright young ladies clutching important letters and leaping into the air with glee. These lissom blondes are, of course, the students with straight As. ‘Yessss!’, they have just got into their first-choice university: ‘OMG this is, like, the Best Day Ever!’
What you don’t see is a photograph of the students who fall short of their predicted grades. There will be no leaping, no Daddy buying a bottle of champagne for this lot. They’ll be in hiding, blubbing over the letter or pathetically phoning their director of studies to ask him to perform a miracle.
Not too long ago, I made one of those humiliating calls myself. ‘Um… you know how it says I got a B for French?’ I said anxiously. Yes.
‘Well, please can you double-check just in case it was misread?’ Nope, still a B.
Oh well, I got over it pretty quickly because my grades still earned me a place at York University. But what about those who mess things up badly? I mean the would-be straight-A students who accidentally get ABC (a ‘Justin Welby’), or BBC (an ‘auntie’), or — in these days of grade hyperinflation — AAA when they really need an A* in the mix. These panicking school-leavers will hurriedly start thinking about re-marks and retakes.
There are a few elephant traps to watch out for. When asking for a re-mark, parents and students should remember that marks can go down. And if they do, you’re stuck with the lower mark (and a bill to pay).
A positive change is a rare event. As one exam board warns: ‘The majority of re-mark requests do not result in a change to a grade — simply because the re-mark has shown that the original grade was accurate.’ (Think of exam markers as being a bit like 1970s trade unionists. They stick up for each other.)
The second option — and here’s where it gets a little complicated in 2013 — is a retake. Until this year, school-leavers could retake their A-levels the following January. They’d get a job or go backpacking for a few months, reapply to universities in the autumn, and have another crack at the exams in the New Year.
Nasty Michael Gove has changed all that. Or, to be more precise, nasty Ofqual, the government body that regulates exams. It issued an ex cathedra pronouncement in November 2012 which said that January retakes were to be scrapped because of concerns over a ‘resit culture’. Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief executive, said: ‘Teachers in particular said that A-level students approach examinations with the expectation they will always get a second chance.’
It’s true, the culture did exist. One newspaper reported the case of an idle teenager who was allowed to retake his maths A-level a total of 29 times until he passed. How were universities, overwhelmed with applications, supposed to spot the difference between that lazy oaf and the star student who worked hard and passed first time?
It’s a bit late for the rights and wrongs of Ofqual’s change, which has certainly ruffled feathers among teachers. The question now is: if there are no January retakes, what are the options? The short answer is to retake exams the following June, but there’s more to it than that. Everyone I’ve spoken to in education has had the same advice for A-level students who slip up: take a deep breath, don’t get steamrollered and seek advice. If you want to go to a good university, this can be fixed. One thing is clear, however: this advice is no longer aimed at the students who have flunked their exams, the U-grade students and the GTFs (Eton-speak for ‘general, total failures’).
Why? Because the whacking great cost of university tuition fees — £27,000 over three years — means that there is no point retaking A-levels to get CCC and a place at the University of Sainsbury’s to study Windsurfing Sciences. Add living expenses to tuition fees and you’d be wasting a small fortune on a course that probably wouldn’t lead to a job.
The good news for middling students is that the cap on those with an A and two B grades has this year been lifted: universities can accept as many as they like. So if a student with a ‘Justin Welby’ thinks they can push it up to ABB, then it’s time to look seriously at June retakes and — if you can afford the fees — a crammer.
A good place to start is cife.org.uk, an association that represents a group of 18 independent sixth-form colleges in London, Oxford, Bath, Birmingham, Northampton, Market Harborough and Cambridge. Importantly, given the scrapping of the New Year retakes, the colleges offer short courses from January until June, which are due to expand.
The four-letter problem with this model is UCAS. Prospective students still have to apply to universities in the autumn for entry the following year. And if they haven’t started at the crammer, they will have to go through the process with their old school — which is unlikely to give them higher predicted grades.
That’s why colleges like MPW offer split courses which start in the autumn, include supervision of the UCAS process, but have a break halfway through the Michaelmas term until mid-February. It means a bit of freedom to work or travel, but the right help when you need it. Steven Boyes, MPW’s London principal, explains that this impresses universities: ‘Admissions tutors want to see a clear plan of action.’ They want to know, from the word go, what is this student doing to improve their grades?
Ultimately, as he and other teachers say, students are more likely to do better at a university they are proud to attend. And when you consider the earning power of a Russell Group alumnus with a first, investing in a few retakes becomes a no-brainer.
From the Spectator’s Independent Schools supplement September 2013
Will Heaven is on the staff of the Daily Telegraph.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 7 September 2013