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Help! My child didn’t get their A level or GCSE grades – what can they do?

Teenage boy disappointed with exam results

Exam results day can be a stressful event in normal circumstances, but this year anxiety levels may be particularly high as students get results for exams they never sat.

To make matters worse, an almighty row has been raging over the way the grades have been calculated.

After a chaotic few days in which nobody seemed to know what was happening, the government has now announced that A level and GCSE students in England will receive the grades estimated by their teachers, rather than those produced by an algorithm.

That brings England into line with the rest of the UK: on Monday (17 August) the Wales and Northern Ireland governments made the same change, while in Scotland, where results were released earlier this month, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had already admitted the government had got it wrong – and pledged that students who are thought to have been disadvantaged will receive the teacher predictions.

The U-turn came after it was revealed that nearly 40 per cent of grades had been marked down from teachers’ predictions by the algorithm, which was devised by the exams regulator Ofqual. 

With the A level debate ongoing and with GCSE results due to be published later this week (Thursday 20th August), we look at how you can help your child deal with results day.

Reassure them

Although your child will be disappointed if their grades are not what they hoped, advise them that this is a bump in the road – not the end of their dreams. 

They can still reach their goal, but they will just need to review their options for getting there. Then offer them practical help to look for alternatives.

Appealing the results

There is currently a fair bit of confusion around exactly what you or your child can do if they didn’t receive the grades they were expecting.

It’s a fast-changing situation and we’d expect more information to be made available soon – but right now your best bet is probably to speak directly to your school about it.

Plan to take the exams

You can’t appeal the grades because you or your child think they could have done better by sitting the exams.

But there is the option to take the exams in the autumn or next summer – and then keep whichever grade is higher.

Students who achieved lower than grade 4 in GCSE Maths or English should plan to sit these exams as these core subjects are needed for most routes – whether into sixth form, college or an apprenticeship.

Many technical and vocational exams have several assessment dates throughout the year, making ‘resits’ in these fairly straightforward.

Don’t assume the worst  

Schools and colleges have been told to be more flexible in offering places to students post-GCSE, so don’t worry too much if the grades are lower than expected. 

Call them to talk through the options and discuss whether retakes will be needed. These can often be done alongside the A level, or other level 3, course.

University applications

Students who don’t meet their conditional offers from universities need not despair either. There are plenty of reasons why their place may be safe, after all.

This year is like no other. A global pandemic has not only affected the exam system, it has also deterred many international students from applying, which means that UK universities will have more places available.

And many UK students are considering deferring entry until next year, now that social distancing rules are likely to affect their first-year uni experience.

On top of that, there are fewer 18-year-olds than in some years.

It’s worth calling the admissions office if grades are lower than expected. Universities have been asked to delay decisions until the results of any appeal and the special circumstances of this year should make them more lenient.

UCAS clearing

Last year 70,000 students got places through the university admission service UCAS’ clearing system.

It means choosing a different course or university but there will be many options available. And who knows where it might lead?

Don’t rush into anything – get some advice from the school or college and talk directly to university admissions teams.

For anyone who has got better results than expected, there is the opportunity of trading upwards for a course more suited to your career plans through the UCAS adjustment scheme.

Try to be flexible

It can be hard for students to adjust their thinking when they’ve set their hearts on something. But, sometimes, a slight change of direction or a different course can be the answer. Purely academic study is not for everyone.

Vocational qualifications, such as a BTECs, NVQs or T levels, provide a practical and creative approach to learning, less classroom-based than A levels. They often provide the opportunity for students to gain work experience and they're usually examined via assessments and coursework, with less emphasis on final exams.

Apprenticeships are another option for anyone over 16. They combine practical training in a job with study and vacancies become available throughout the year. For application and interview tips, take a look at the UCAS webpage.

Image: Daisy Daisy/


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