A Head Master Writes - The Sunday Times blog

A-level meltdown: a guide for parents in clearing limbo

A level results day never gets easier. However well a school has done, there are always boys and girls who have set their hearts on results that have slipped through their fingers. I know that I will never see a results day when someone who absolutely deserved their place has not lost it, perhaps by a matter of a single mark on a crucial paper. Others will miss by a long way, and however much this might have been anticipated, it is still a devastating and public rebuff that needs careful handling by schools and parents.

So what can you do if A level results day didn’t go to plan for your son or daughter?

First, you have to avoid various understandable but destructive reactions. Try to avoid launching a blistering attack on your child as they reel from the stark and lowly grades staring back at them from the pitiless results sheet in their hand. However feckless and infuriating Belinda has been, however often you told her to stay in and do some work, or get off the phone and revise for the next day’s maths test, like most teenagers, she will consider poor results to be utterly unfair. Even if you know you are going to have to talk about the mysterious connectivity of cause and effect eventually, things will be very raw for a week or so. Discussions will be far more fruitful if blame can be left to one side.

Many pupils who have missed their offer are not at all lazy – they have been unlucky, or perhaps they have been pushed by their school or family to apply for courses, such as medicine, whose offers they would never attain. And yet, some parents will say, in front of their child, that the whole family are “devastated” by the bad results. The language used resembles that of a global tragedy, and it quickly becomes apparent that not only was the university place more important to the parents than to the child, but that with every word they speak, they make their child’s sense of failure more and more deeply felt. Again, understandable – but almost certain to create a sense of enduring worthlessness in their crushed offspring.

The way we respond to our child, and their school, around results time, has a deep effect on the teenager taking in everything that is said and done at this time. Some are left feeling worthless, that they have “let down” their family or school. Others feel angry. Their parents furiously blame the school in an ill-advised attempt to show solidarity with their child. But even if this anger is really justified, and it often isn’t, it can lead their child to feel there will always be someone else to blame for their own misadventures. Life lessons are learned at these “crunch” times, and as parents we play a greater part in conveying them than we might realise.

But apart from being balanced and supportive, what practical advice can we offer?

From last Thursday morning, many courses were available through Clearing. The days when Clearing meant little more than three places for Golf Course Studies at Luton are long gone; this year we saw places available in medicine and law – unheard of just five years ago. This is why about one in eight of all students will probably gain their place this way. In 2016, over 60,000 people found places through the Clearing route, and the number is likely to be even bigger this year. There are fewer applicants this year, and universities are desperate to fill as many places as they can provide to maximise their income. However, the process moves quickly – almost half of those who go through Clearing will be placed by the Monday after results day.

If you haven’t already encouraged your son or daughter to look at clearing, then do so now. If everything seems complicated and unclear, call the excellent Exam Results Hotline on 0808 100 8000 or Twitter @ERHelp or facebook.com/examresults helpline.

By now, Clearing might not have much to offer, or you might know already that results don’t meet the need. In that case, there are plenty of things to say to your son or daughter:

Look at the grade boundaries for exam results and see how close you are to the next grade up. You can ask for a re-mark from the exam board. If a place depends on this, make sure you do this very soon and ask for a priority re-mark. If you are upgraded by 31st August, universities are almost certain to honour the place. You can also ask to see your script, although don’t let this delay an urgent re-mark if this is needed. One board (Edexcel) have sent copies of many scripts direct to schools and centres already, so you should be able to see these immediately if your school is able to help; but other boards need you to request them individually.

Think about reapplying through UCAS in the autumn. Yes, it means a gap year, and it probably means re-takes, but this can be a valuable opportunity to reset your ambitions in life. You need to think through where you will sit the exams, and how you will prepare for them. A good school will continue to support its pupils after results day, but you might decide you need to look at a local college or visit www.cife.org.uk – a website with information about independent colleges that specialise in preparing students for university entrance.

Disappointing results give people a great opportunity to think again about their plans. As well as degrees there are various other pathways through higher education. These include Higher National Certificates (HNC) or Diplomas (HND), and foundation degrees. These are two-year courses which often have lower entry requirements and can be topped up to a full degree later. Have a look at www.ucas.com to see the full range of options, including apprenticeships.

Finally, we need to remember that for some, university really isn’t the best way to spend three years. In the dark ages, until the mid-1990s, fewer than 100,000 students gained a degree each year. By 2009, that had risen to 350,000. In the last few years, many popular universities have increased their numbers considerably. Classes are bigger, pastoral care is often minimal, especially compared with the increasingly compassionate approach of most schools, and degree grade inflation too often compensates for poor teaching and lacklustre engagement between academics and students. Pupils taking arts subjects at leading universities often tell me that contact time is derisory; essays are rarely set and even less frequently marked.

And of course, a three-year degree is likely to lead to a debt of well over £50,000, especially now the interest rate on the loan, charged from the moment you start your degree, is set at a punitive level. So, before you accept a place for a subject you don’t want to study at a university you don’t want to go to – just think again about what you really expect to achieve.

It would be facile to say that disappointing A levels might be the best thing that has happened to your child – but I can think of countless students for whom bad news on results day led to great outcomes later, even if it just spared them a miserable time at the wrong place studying the wrong subject. In other cases, where the results really are unfair and cruel, the way a boy or girl rises to the challenge, accepts the need for a different university or a few re-takes, can transform them even more than their new university will ever do.

Andrew Halls
Head Master

Head Master writes: Sunday Times blog archive


King's College School

Southside, Wimbledon Common,

London SW19 4TT

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Telephone: 020 8255 5300

Email: reception@kcs.org.uk

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