A-level students across the country are awaiting their results - which for the first time will be predicted by teachers after exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis.
The period between sitting your last exam and opening that envelope containing the key to your future is ordinarily a very stressful time, but for students hoping to set off to university this year, the anxiety has intensified due to the fact they’ve had little control over their grades.
As schools closed back in March to curb the spread of coronavirus, not only have students not had much hands-on time with their teachers, they’ve also been prevented from sitting their A-level exams. Instead, the results for the two-year period will be based on teachers’ earlier predictions and their confidence in individual students’ ability to achieve that mark.
These predicted grades will be submitted and then external examination boards will moderate the estimated grades, using various factors, such as mock results and non-exam assessments, to determine the final outcome.
Many have expressed concerns over the fairness of this method designed by Ofqual (England's exam regulator), which depends in part on the faculty members' ability to remain impartial and lay their bias aside.
Earlier this year, The Commons Education Committee admitted that disadvantaged and ethnic minority pupils face greater risk of unconscious bias.
Ofqual's deputy chief regulator also told the committee: "There is some evidence of bias.
"For the most able students [from ethnic minority backgrounds], there tends to be under-prediction of the grades that students go on to get. At lower levels of ability, you get the reverse effect where there is some over-prediction."
Robert Halfon, the Education Committee chairman, also admitted: "No system for awarding grades will be perfect [...] we have serious worries about the fairness of the model developed by Ofqual."
He also questioned how fair the appeals system would be, calling this year's process the "Wild West of appeals", favouring the "well-heeled and sharp-elbowed" who know how the system works.
What’s more, many students who usually fare better in exams fear their inability to sit their tests this year may be a setback for them, and despite having sat mock exams earlier on in the academic year, students were unaware at the time that their performance would contribute to their overall marks.
This has triggered a response from the Government, who announced on August 11 that A-level students would be able to keep their mock exam results, should they be higher than their overall grade on Thursday.
In addition to the very valid fears students have about their grades, there also comes concerns over their university experience; the pandemic not just impacts their performance, but will prevent prospective students starting their degrees from socialising and making friends in the same way most Freshers would.
So, given how little say A-level students have had, the Evening Standard has spoken to a group of students from both state and private education to hear their thoughts and concerns over the upcoming Results Day, and their university experience.
Liv Facey, 18
Studied English Literature & Language, Textiles and History at A-level, planning on going to King's College London to study English
"I feel that a lot of students will be disadvantaged," Liv explained. "I’m more nervous about my grades now than I was at GCSE due to the lack of clarity surrounding how my grades will be calculated and moderated [...] This year just shows how without exams it’s very hard to know a student’s academic potential."
Despite normally suffering with anxiety in the lead up to exams, Liv does feel that by not having sat them this year, many students will be at a disadvantage: "At GCSE, I felt that I wouldn’t have done well because of how I feel about exams, but in the end I got better grades than I or my teachers expected, which just highlights how as much as it’s perceived that our teachers know us, they are not always accurate in knowing what a student can pull out of the bag on the day."
She added: "I feel that [her overall grade] being based on the work I’ve done during the academic year doesn’t really reflect me as a whole.
"I feel that this is the case for a lot of students as we never expected for our mock results to be of such high importance. I know a lot of people who didn’t revise for mocks because they didn’t see mocks as final examinations.
"I think by not taking exams it has really lowered my confidence in being able to get the results I wanted."
Ms Facey also has concerns that the lack of contact with teaching staff at her college in recent months will potentially affect her performance, should she need to resit her exams in autumn.
On what her university experience will be like, Liv said: "I think in some ways it will be limited as universities kind of thrive on being in contact with lots of people. Freshers' Week probably won’t happen like it normally would because the whole week is based around interacting with people.
"From what I’ve heard from my university they are making provisions to ensure that we have face to face contact with our lecturers and time on campus but I don’t think it will be the same."
She also added: "There’s quite a few international students going to my university and talking to a few of them, they’re saying they don’t think they’d be able to come right away due to their own country being on lockdown or just not having flights to the UK."
Anya Burrows, 18
Studied geography, law & politics at Bay House Sixth Form, planning on going to Durham University
Anya shares Liv's concerns when it comes to the grading system this year: "I feel that no matter which way it was decided how our grades were given, it wouldn't be fair for everyone.
"I feel that taking into consideration multiple factors is a good way but in my personal opinion no one ever performs as good as they would in the real exam. I suppose teachers know that though!"
She continued: "In my experience, this has created massive uncertainty for me and my grades as in terms of classwork my strengths and weaknesses are obvious. Also, no teacher or minister has suggested which factor is the most important when deciding grades, so that makes me nervous."
Ms Burrows also feels like she ordinarily fares better in exams and reflects on what it means to not be able to sit them this year, saying: "I often perform much better in exams, particularly ones that hold significance as I prepare months in advanced unlike for mock exams.
"This is partly due to that when mocks happen, you're still learning content and revising on the side so it makes things harder to juggle. At the time of mocks I focussed on the end goal rather than the near one, meaning that I didn't really revise for my mocks because I was focussing on current content for the end exam. This really shot me in the foot!"
While Ms Burrows noted the commitment of the teaching staff at her sixth form, she also commented: "What almost felt a little too much at times with consistent classwork being set and that standard wanting to be maintained."
In terms of setting off to university, Ms Burrows discussed the living situation and being told she and fellow students would still be able to move into halls: "I am shocked about this!"
However, despite this news, she went on to say: "I suppose I am a bit disappointed just because it's part of the whole 'uni experience', but in my experience I wouldn't be going if it wasn't for the degree getting me the job I want, so I don't see it as big of a deal.
"But I know a lot of my friends have deferred their places and are really disappointed that it won't be the same."
Alex Stanley, 17
Studied politics, English literature and history at City & Islington Sixth Form College, planning on going to Exeter to study politics, philosophy and economics
Alex commented on how this year's system has gotten rid of an element of individuality: "I'm frustrated about the way that grades have been determined this year," he said.
"The system of standardisation treats us students as groups, rather than individuals, and this will inevitably benefit those from higher socio-economic backgrounds and those in private education.
"This leaves no room for some students to achieve beyond what is expected of their college/sixth form, and will only increase the educational inequalities in this country."
Like many of the others, Alex also feels he performs stronger in exams: "At GCSE I attained better grades than those predicted for me, and I worry that I may miss out on the opportunity to make up the ground that I potentially could with exams.
"In all honesty, as the results will not be directly reflective of my actions, I am more focused on confirming my place at university and less concerned with the actual grades themselves."
Speaking of university, Mr Stanley said: "Freshers' Week is always depicted as one of the best times you'll have at university, so I am disappointed that it won't be as full on and event filled as it normally is. However, my firm choice have committed to Freshers' going ahead, and whilst this will be with restrictions and social distancing, I'm sure universities will do their best to ensure students feel welcome."
In terms of how lectures will be set up, Mr Stanley added: "I've been told by my firm choice that lectures will be online whilst smaller sessions will proceed in person, and to me this seems to be a sensible and pragmatic balance between a good experience and safety."
Ayaan Abdulle, 18
Studied biology, chemistry and maths at City & Islington Sixth Form College, planning on going to Southampton University to study medicine
Ayaan agrees the marking the system this year "does leave a lot of room for uncertainty, which can cause some worry. In particular about the future; students have worked hard during admissions process to achieve their offers from chosen universities."
Ms Abdulle also feels she is usually stronger in exams than when it comes to coursework: "With exams the outcome is dependent on your own efforts and actions, so you have a greater sense of control. However, now being unable to sit them can cause some doubts."
When it comes to university life, Ayaan has mixed feelings: "Everyone’s university experience is different and this year will be particularly unique.
"I understand need for the rules to maintain the safety of students, such as use of face coverings on campus."
She continued: "I believe that much of university is what you make of it. With some adapting and creativity, I still think you shape your university experience into a positive and memorable one.
"Starting university amidst of a pandemic comes with new challenges, I think there will be different ways to meet people maybe in smaller groups."
Megan Oldham, 18
Studied biology, chemistry, psychology and maths at City & Islington Sixth Form College, planning on going to Durham to study biosciences
Despite initially "feeling okay" by the grading system, Megan later had concerns after the Government announced that there would be different weights to each grading factor.
"I was feeling okay as I have consistently been working at the same grades over the course of the two years.
"[...] I became extremely worried as it is a fully inclusive college and the average grade that students get is far off my predicted so I am worried about being downgraded to a grade that I do not deserve due to the past history of the college," she said.
Ordinarily Megan feels she "[does] much better under the pressure that exams bring and usually did well in mock week with the exams due to being in an ‘exam zone’ mental state.
"In my GCSEs I did much better than what I was predicted and while I am happy with what I was predicted with UCAS I am worried that my results won’t do justice to what I would have received had I sat the exams."
When asked if she had had much contact with the teaching staff at her college, Ms Oldham replied: "Up until the point at which I would have gone on study leave, I was having regular contact with my teachers in the same teaching hours that I would have had if I had been in college [...] We would finish the course and at least have all the knowledge expected when going to university."
As for her own university experience, Ms Oldham admited it may be "limited". Beyond the classes themselves, Megan commented on the living situation: "I will only be living with people who also do the same course as me and I was quite looking forward to having a wide range of people to make friends with, but if it's only my subject it will be limited. I am hoping that labs will still be able to take place though as this is a large part of my course."
Natraya Thomas, 18
Studied biology, history and politics at A-level, planning on going to Plymouth to study nursing
Natraya was also sceptical about how the grading system would work: "I feel really upset about the way they're predicting grades. When we first found out that we weren't going to be sitting exams everybody I knew was in hysterics assuming that they would use just mock and predicted grades.
"However, the class rating system and using how well schools/ colleges would usually get does not accurately show how the work of the individual."
She continued: "Exams are completely different from mock tests and class assessments in so many ways, so I feel most people are better at exams.
"When schools closed and we were told we weren't going to sit exams, there was not one class syllabus that we had finished - but there was still so much time left. The months running up to exams are the most stressful because it's the time when you spend all of your time studying and preparing for them; so I feel that work cannot be reflected in predictions of mock results.
"I have no confidence in the results I will receive."
When in comes to contact with her teachers, Ms Thomas said: "I haven't spoken to any of my teachers since April because there really is no reason to.
"I have returned my school books and have been informed on what will happen on results day but have had no actual contact with my teachers; they can't answer any of my questions because they know as much as we do."
Sophie Howard, 18
Planning on going to the University of Sheffield to study politics with modern languages
Unlike the other students we spoke to, Sophie feels like the grading method is probably the best solution: "Although it’s not ideal, I think this method of collating past results from assessments and mocks is probably the best way to get an overall view of how someone performs.
"Many people were worried they would just look at results from one mock so hopefully the results we’re given will be appropriate for what we’ve already achieved."
What's more, she's "confident they can’t throw a random letter at me for no reason," as "if the board are looking at all our other work, then we worked for those grades and they’re quite consistent ."
Ms Howard is also optimistic about her university experience: "Yeah Freshers is a big part of what I pictured moving to uni to be like, it’s a shame.
"I’m hopeful that because everyone’s in the same boat, we’ll all still want to do it at some point, even if it’s in 2021. "
She continued: "The same goes for meeting people really, I’m hoping there will be more flat parties and people might all make more of an effort to chat and make friends themselves rather than in societies or subjects," before adding, "we’re there for at least 3 years, even if they’re on Zoom at the start I’m sure we’ll get to a proper lecture at some point!"
Results Day is on Thursday, August 13. We will be following up with the students in this article to see how they got on.