Students resitting A-level exams externally feel abandoned in the grades crisis

It’s been a tough year for students.

After the pandemic threw their education into disarray, students were forced to study from home, accessing classes online.

GCSEs, A-levels and other important exams were cancelled as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, leaving young people with a precarious future.

Though the government had initially settled on a ‘standardisation’ system in lieu of exams, it proved to have major flaws, downgrading 39% of students and affecting high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

After protests and much online backlash, the government made a major U-turn, saying students will now be given grades assessed by their teachers – called centre-assessed grades (CAGs).

But what about students that don’t have teachers, or centres to give them those grades?

There are 20,000 – which makes up 2% of the student population – independent students.

Students choose to take exams externally for several reasons, including being home-schooled, retaking because of poor grades the first time, injury or personal circumstances, bereavement, or to strive for better results to get into top universities.

Many of these are students hoping to get into competitive degrees including medicine and dentistry.

In April, Ofqual – the exam and qualification regulator – said independent students can get their grades from exam boards who will submit CAGs and include the student in their centre’s rank order.

But many centres weren’t able to give CAGs, saying they didn’t know candidates well enough to give a grade.

In a statement this week to Metro.co.uk, Ofqual said: ‘We confirmed earlier this summer that private candidates, which would include home educated students, would only be able to receive a result where the Head of Centre, where they were due to take their exams, was confident their staff had seen sufficient evidence of the student’s achievement to submit a centre assessment grade and include them in the centre’s rank order.

‘We also worked with exam boards to create alternative options for private candidates whose original centre may have decided a centre assessment grade could not be submitted, subsequently allowing candidates to consider transferring from one centre to another.

‘For private candidates where this was not possible, they will be able to take an exam in the autumn series.’

Many independent students have either been downgraded or not given a grade at all, being left in limbo.

For medicine students this comes as a huge blow as A-levels needed to apply for med school have to be completed within three years.

Some who held conditional offers to medical school also need to reapply next time via UCAS, meaning they have to do the interview process all over again as well as study for the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT) to get in.

These applications and travelling to interviews cost money, meaning ethnic minorities – who are more likely to be in lower-income bands – and working-class students are disadvantaged.

Though the Government announced that medicine courses will lift their cap to allow more students in, this may still disenfranchise those independent students as priority is likely to be given to those students who’ve had their grades upgraded since the U-turn.

Not only are independent students left with lower scores, they also have to rebook important entry exams for which they have a mere few weeks to study after six months off.

We spoke to some of these students to find out how they are going to plan for their future now.

Jodh

I chose to resit my A-Levels independently to prove to myself my true potential. I sought to reach for my dreams and become someone. Being a BAME person in the UK brings its own set of challenges, and for individuals like me, a good set of exam results is not a trophy to be put on the wall, it is the only path to move forward.

The year has been an arduous, unforgiving road. While all of my peers had flown the nest, living their lives, enjoying the university experience, I was isolated in my on my desk with a computer, pen and paper keeping me company. 

Resit students have worked extremely hard this year, if not harder, given we’ve had to deal with the mental and financial challenges that came with resitting A-Level exams. 

We are no different from the rest of the A-Level cohort. Covid-19 does not discriminate, so why are we being discriminated against for choosing to (or in my case, the only choice I had) enrol in an exam centre as opposed to an institution?

External/home school students want to be issued with their UCAS predicted grades as they were issued by their own teachers or tutors who know them best.

We deserve justice. We deserve to move forward too. 

Ferdaus

I am a resit student from an ethnic minority and lower socioeconomic background, underperforming due to my personal circumstance. I had received two offers to study medicine from King’s College London and the University of Southampton of which I have been stripped as they refuse to defer these offers.

I am ineligible to sit the autumn exams, I cannot reapply to medicine as one of the requirements is that A-Levels are taken within a three-year period – a third-year that was stolen from me by Covid-19 and this incompetent government. 

RJ

I was supposed to resit one of my A-level subjects externally at my old school. They said that they could not provide me with CAGs and therefore I had no grades for this summer.

This meant that the two medicine offers I worked so hard for were lost and I am having to reapply a third time. This will be my second gap year which is extremely stressful and embarrassing for me, not to mention the effort and struggle of having to go through the entire medical application process again for the third time (UCAT, interviews, etc).

The least that the universities could do is hold my offers for next year’s entry so I don’t have to repeat the UCAT and interviews and I simply need to do the exams at a later date to meet my offer. I feel forgotten and abandoned by the education system and my universities.

Amy

In March 2019, I had a spinal injury which resulted in me breaking my back. Five weeks after my accident, in April 2019, I sat mock exams where I got BBB. This year, my CAGs have gone off those mock exams I sat a year ago, and I have missed out on my place to study Medicine, where I needed AAA.

Mohammed

My dreams are being delayed – all for reasons beyond my control, due to Covid-19 and poor government strategies. I am a private student on a gap year repeating my A-levels to get admission into medicine. However, the exam board refused to issue grades to me and all my firm and insurance medicine offers are rejected due to this.

I deserve an explanation. I deserve to know why I was not good enough. I deserve to know why teaching myself three subjects day and night for a whole year was not good enough. I deserve to know why they have ruined my chance at life. Why I don’t feel like living anymore. Why I feel like all my hard work and money has gone to waste.

Ali

I am a private candidate supposed to be resitting my A-Levels this summer. After Ofqual announced that ‘all students will get grades’ I postponed my revision for months to give myself a break from working hard all year. Only for them to say at the very last minute that private candidates cannot receive grades.

I lost out on my uni offers and even tried to go for a foundation year as I was one grade off but they still said no, they didn’t even offer deferred entry,

They stated unis will be flexible but they were the complete opposite. Having to be on the phone with unsympathetic staff and being ignored for months has been detrimental to my health.

I don’t want to sit the autumn exams because there is no way that I am as prepared as I was back before exams were cancelled. But I’m gonna have to, at an overpriced centre as my centre refused to give me a grade and refused to do the autumn exams. All I wanted this year was to go to uni with my well-deserved grades. 

Ray

There are thousands of us who have been told we are not getting grades, thousands of us who are being forced to take out another year and be two years behind normal academic progression in order to retake the exams.

We deserve to be given our UCAS-predicted grades. CAGs don’t work with us because our centres are just exam centres who have no knowledge or pre-existing relationship with us.

This is why we demand to be given UCAS-predicted grades because they have been done by our former teachers or tutors who have knowledge of our capabilities. Another problem is that due to the government’s U-turn, the few universities willing to accept candidates with 0 grades will now reject us in favour of the students getting their grades upgraded.

Hanna

I feel like I, and others in a similar position, have been massively disadvantaged because we have spent so much time and money to improve our grades from last year only to receive absolutely nothing at the end of it. The government’s recent decision to award students with their CAGs has no bearing on us whatsoever because we did not receive any in the first place.

And now being told we have to take another gap year because of something completely out of our control has been so heartbreaking. This year has been the hardest year of my life and I have never felt so lonely and dejected, especially considering all my friends went to university. I was completely alone. To find out I must go through this again is so incredibly frustrating. I feel as though we have not been taken into consideration at all and have been completely disregarded.

If you’re feeling stressed out or held back, there are some helplines you can contact to chat with professionals.

Check out the UK Youth Employment website which lists different helplines and support resources.

Do you have a story you want to share?

Email [email protected] to tell us more.

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