As pupils across the UK tear open their A-level results, palms perhaps slightly clammy, stomachs churning with excitement, anxiety or plain dread, this is a day that has life-shaping potential for around 28,000 young people.
This year, grades are generally expected to take a hit, after two years of exceptional marks during the height of Covid. Students were sitting exams for the first time since the pandemic began, and we know that fewer than one in five 16-19 year-olds received any support from the government’s flagship education recovery offer, a tutoring programme that simply has not reached pupils in the numbers required.
In 2021, the proportion of A-level students given top marks reached a record high, but the increase in A grades, according to data from the regulator Ofqual, was 50 per cent higher in independent schools than in secondary comprehensives. Experts warned that last year’s results would “compound” the clear and well-documented inequality in the education system.
I remember my A-level results day clearly, although it was now many moons ago. The sheet of paper seemed to blur before my eyes, bearing three A grades (before the days of A* at A-level – brag alert!), which meant that I’d got into my first choice of university. But the triumph was tainted.
It was already tempered by my Oxbridge rejection months earlier. I’d attended an interview at a college I’d picked – admittedly at random – and the prestige of an acceptance, particularly for a kid from a non-selective state school in a deprived catchment area, had seemed like the be all and end all. Even a perfect set of results (predicted and achieved) didn’t get me a place. I felt like I’d failed before I’d even got started.
Unlike many independent schools, my comprehensive did not have an established tradition of sending a bunch of students to Oxford or Cambridge every year. I was wrapped up in the self-imposed narrative that getting into Oxbridge would’ve made a difficult secondary school experience, marred by bullying and poor mental health, somehow “worth it”. I carried the Oxbridge rejection into my degree, curling myself around the failure like an oyster with an irritating, bitter little grain of sand.
To A-level students today, I beg you – don’t make the same mistake as me. I couldn’t see the potential in my results, because I hadn’t achieved the uni place I wanted. If you don’t get into your first choice of university, or your results aren’t exactly what you hoped for, it can feel like a devastating body blow that you’ll never recover from. But that’s not true. If your route is looking a bit different to what you had in mind on opening that results envelope, it doesn’t mean you’re a write-off or a failure.
I’m not going to do a Jeremy Clarkson here, and tell you that higher education doesn’t really matter. It does, and that’s why the structural inequality that is very much alive and kicking within our education system is crying out to be addressed.
For some reason, we accept the fact that families with the financial resources to do so can buy their children places at eye-wateringly expensive private schools, with the smaller class sizes, better resources and technology and the sense of self-efficacy that accompanies this. All the while, many of these independent fee-paying schools revel in charitable status.
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Yes, the private school sector cries, but we give a third of all pupils financial assistance! In 2018, census figures revealed that independent schools were spending millions more on giving affluent middle-class families discounts on fees compared to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Last year, data showed that Black students, those on free school meals, and those living in areas of high deprivation were all less likely to achieve the top A or A* grades than their more privileged peers.
A priority in Britain should be to stamp out regional and social inequality and ensure top-quality education for all pupils. allowing them to uncover and access their full academic potential, and move on to further education or training that suits their needs and aspirations.
It’s also important to remember that paths towards a life that’s fulfilling and joyful – I hesitate to use the word “success” because that merits a wider exploration of what it might mean for each individual – are endlessly varied. Had I not been so wrapped up in my Oxbridge rejection, perhaps I’d have had a more satisfying experience at the university I did end up attending. We write scripts for ourselves at such young ages about what we must do and where we must end up, that while they can be inspiring and purposeful, they can also feel like a straightjacket and foster feelings of inadequacy and failure.
What I’m trying to say here is this: aim high, and be prepared for more of a winding road than the one you might have envisaged – because privilege still calls too many of the shots in our education system.
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