Beat the #ResultsDay media scrum with buzzword bingo!

With A Level results day pending, press, politicians and performative celebrities alike will be preparing for the inevitable annual media scrum.

Navigate your way though the quagmire of commentary with this handy results day buzzword bingo card. I hope it helps a little to make the day more manageable!

If you’re looking for some advice with the UCAS Clearing process, you might find this Clearing Checklist helpful.

Clearing Checklist

2022 Update

I wrote this post for A Level results day last year. If anything, the 2022 results carry even more uncertainty. For students, parents and teachers. We had a return to exams in school, but for a cohort that had not sat exams for GCSEs, had coped with lockdown, and then coped with A level study under pandemic conditions. Add to that Ofqual’s move to a ‘midway point’ for grades and record competition for university places, and it’s a tense time for all concerned.

I hope this checklist will be helpful for anyone using the UCAS Clearing system to find a university place this year.

Clearing checklist

The 2020-21 school year was different from any that went before but one constant is the UCAS Clearing process for university grades. Here’s my checklist for those using this system:

  1. Wait until you have your grades. While UCAS open clearing early in July, universities can’t make an offer to you unless you know your grades.
  2. Make sure you know how clearing works. UCAS explain it here: What is clearing?
  3. Have your personal statement to hand as well as your grades and UCAS ID. You’ll need to be able to speak about yourself, not just your grades.
  4. Do some research on colleges. You may want to go for an alternative course at a university that made you an offer, alternatively you may be phoning a uni you didn’t originally apply to. Either way, you will need to give a positive reason why you want a place there.
  5. Similarly, research the courses on offer. You should be able to give a positive reason for doing that course and be able to say why it interests you.
  6. Avoid reasons that will set alarm bells ringing for tutors. Examples are ‘My friend is going there’ or ‘My Dad thinks it’s a good idea’.
  7. Be ready to explain why you got lower grades than you expected. Was it down to a particular topic? Did something happen that affected your performance? Show that you have reflected on this and remain positive about your subjects. Be ready to talk about what went well and areas of study you enjoy.
  8. You need to make the call yourself. The university want to hear from you and learn about you, not your teacher or your mum!
  9. Don’t worry about being nervous when you call, the tutor you speak to will be used to this, but do be prepared to speak clearly. Write out a sheet with key points and have this in front of you when you call.
  10. If you get an offer, don’t forget to add this as a clearing choice in UCAS track. Only do this when the university give you permission.

You may want to take some time to think about if this is the right time to go to university. Your friends or family may be encouraging you to go but it’s a decision you need to make for yourself. Retaking exams might be the right decision, or employment might provide additional experience for a future application. Whatever you decide, best wishes for your chosen future!

This year, more than ever, schools can make all the difference on results day

Last week we experienced the extraordinary turmoil around A Level results. In the face of the downgrading debacle, students now have the option to use the grades provided by teachers. Unfortunately that Government announcement came too late for many to take up university places this year.

Whether through inherent biases in the system, incompetency in those in charge of the process, or a mixture of both, the awarding of grades in a year when exams were not taken has become a farce. But while A level students, and their aspirations for their educational future have been caught in the middle of that farce, the same need not be true for GCSE students.

For most students, progression from GCSEs will be to sixth forms and FE colleges. It’s those sixth forms and colleges that have the power to make a difference on results day, despite the controversies that have led up to it.

At the time of writing I’m not exactly sure what grades year 11 (including my own son) will be getting on Thursday – those from Ofqual’s algorithm? the CAGs? The best of the two, or perhaps one this week and the other next? does anybody know?!*

Whatever is in those envelopes, school staff will know the grades that they gave students and are in the position to offer them their next educational opportunity. For GCSEs, this means that it’s schools that are in the position to tackle each of the iniquities – of disadvantage, school type, geography, and background- that arose for the A Level results. whatever the failures of the system set up to deliver grades this year, those failures don’t have to impact on the class of 2020.

It’s been an extraordinary year. Now, more than ever, students deserve access to the extraordinary individual futures that sixth form and college education can provide. Some schools have already announced their intention to provide this, I hope all will follow.

*Today (Wednesday 19/8/20) My son’s school notified parents that they would be emailing the highest grade for each subject out of the CAG and algorithm-generated grade.

Investing in Secondary PE: good for both health and academic success

In January, I wrote a post about the clear evidence for the link between regular physical exercise and improved academic performance by children in school.

Last month, the Youth Sport Trust (YST) published the report of its survey of UK secondary schools: PE Provision in Secondary Schools 2018. The report, based on a survey of teachers in secondary schools, highlights a worrying decline in Physical Education:

  • Curriculum time for PE has declined over time, most markedly at KS4.
  • Curriculum time for PE reduces as students move from KS3 to KS4, and beyond.
  • The main reason given for the decline was that additional time was given to core subjects or EBacc subjects.

The YST report concludes that these findings confirm a continuing ‘spiralling downward trend’ in the curriculum time allocated to PE in secondary schools, and that the good work seen in primary schools was rapidly undone. Primary schools will welcome the continuation of the Primary PE and Sport Premium, but there is currently no equivalent financial incentive for secondary schools.

The report focuses on the negative impact this will have on students’ health, particularly in the light of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan which aims for an hour of physical activity a day; 30 minutes of which are in school. The average for KS4 quoted in the report equates to barely 20 minutes per day, most likely achieved in one or two sessions a week. While this is hugely important for the health of young people and the future impact of obesity on the NHS and other services, I believe that it will also be detrimental to academic performance in school. Research has shown that devoting curriculum time to physical exercise rather than having a detrimental effect on GCSE subjects, is in fact linked to improved performance by students in English, Maths and Science (Booth et al, 2014).

The YST report calls on the government and school leaders to do more to promote PE and the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. I think it’s also worth adding that we should take time to understand the research showing that what may appear to be an easy “quick fix” to meet academic performance targets is likely to be counter-productive.

New Specification A Levels – Waiting for the First Results

This post was originally written the week before the 2017 A Level exam results were released (hence the reference to 17th August on the image). I then updated it with the postscript once the results were published. I also re-posted my post on UCAS clearing.

I teach psychology (among other things) and last year I wrote about the Summer 2016 AS exams which were then the first test of the new specification, my teaching of it and interpretation of the assessment criteria. You can read that post here.
  

This year we’re waiting for the first results for the full two-year Advanced Level exams. While we had a good experience with AS, all those concerns about the first run-through of a Specification are still in my mind as I wait for the Advanced psychology results: 

  1. How will my students perform in the actual exams as opposed to our own assessments based on specimen materials?
  2. Will performance nationally vary widely from the usual norm, with a large consequent adjustment of grade boundaries (either up or down)?

  

1. Performance in the actual exams

One of the reasons I opted for the AQA specification was the support this board offered for the new specification including sample assessments, Mark schemes and commentaries. The last time the specification changed the actual exam papers had contained some questions very different in style from the somewhat sparse sample papers. Support from AQA in advance was much better this time, there hadn’t been the same differences in the AS papers, nor were they in the A Level exams this Summer.

There were quite a few widely-reported errors in exams this season, and more recent reporting of the possible impact on students, for example this article from The Guardian on ‘the stress of sitting new untested exams’. Whether or not there were more mistakes than usual, this publicity does seem to have shaken the confidence of many students in the exams process itself.  

Although there were no errors in AQA psychology papers, one thing my students did have to contend with was errors in their brand new text books, particularly first print runs of first editions. I’ve seen this before when publishers rush to get texts out for new specifications. There are often mislabelled images, errors in tables, or inaccuracies in the indexing (i.e. mistakes arising in the production of pages, rather than the authors’ text) but this time there seemed to be several factual errors. Much as it gives my ego a boost to be able to show through reference to primary sources that I was right and the textbook was in error, it doesn’t help students (except perhaps to question everything) and shakes their confidence in their reference materials.

  

2. Will performance vary nationally with unpredicable consequences?

This is a question we will only be able to answer when the results are out. As I wrote in by post about the AS results, such probes have occurred in the past when new specifications have changed, most notably in 2011 (DFE, 2012). This did not seem to be the case for the 2016 AS exams, although more A grades were awarded in psychology. Hopefully this is an indication that Ofqual are on the ball and ensuring a smooth transition between specifications so that students sitting the first year of a new exam will not be penalised.

Nevertheless, whatever the speculation, it’s the actual results that matter. So, like my year 13 students, I’ll be awaiting the A level results a little more nervously than usual this year. I’ll also be hoping that their results, and everyone else’s, will be a true indication of each student’s performance.

  
Postscript – 18th August 2017

It’s seems that now the results are available that there was not wide variation nationally compared with the 2016 results (see this Ofqual infographic), although the media made much of the fact that more boys than girls received top grades.  A* and A grades for the new A levels were slightly down on 2016, with Ofqual stating the changes reflected differences in prior attainment. The proportion of top grades in (unreformed) languages increased as had been previously agreed to counter skewing of results by native speakers. I find it interesting that Ofquals analysis focussed on the top grades.

As for psychology, the proportion of A*/A grades fell 0.3% to 18.8%. There weren’t any shocks as far as the results of my own students went, although a couple did a bit better than I predicted and a couple missed out on a grade. It’s a small number to draw valid conclusions from, but if there was a theme, I think it was that those who worked hard did well, irrespective of their starting point, which must be a good thing.