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Clearing up the results

I get up much earlier than I have done for weeks on the day of A-level results. I get to school where students gather, some pale and shaking, some trying hard to be nonchalant, a minority quietly confident. For the next two hours I listen, comfort, advise and congratulate.

The students who appear the next day are much calmer and in some cases more resigned to rethinking what they will do. I have tried to encourage them to make appointments to see me but they just turn up, knowing my open door policy.

The range of complications in a Year 13 of almost 300 students include the girl whose father died during the year, the boy who took his exams with his jaw wired up after an accident, another whose mother spent most of the year in and out of psychiatric hospital. And, as well as the personal problems, there are the distraught students who have missed their offer by one grade and are trying to get through to the university to find out what is happening.

As usual, I have varying experiences with the many telephone calls to higher education institutions. Some are friendly and helpful: it makes an enormous difference to be able to talk to someone about your position - especially given the fragile state many students are in when they phone. This year many have not been able to get past the switchboard. Institutions repeatedly say they prefer students to call themselves but often all they get is a voice mail message saying that all courses are full and there will be nothing in clearing. I begin to wonder whether ucas should allocate a code to schools so that when they ring for information, they know that it's a genuine enquiry.

I become even more frustrated when I try to check for a student who is working full-time whether the university has confirmed its decision to UCAS. "Yes, " I am told, "but I cannot divulge what the decision is." Why not? If the student knew she was going to her insurance place she could get on and sort out things like accommodation.

The next day I find it hard not to be cynical about the two couples who will only do courses at the same university and clearly think these romances are for life. I try to talk about independence, new friends but am met by looks which imply I'm far too old to know anything about it. Oh well, they'll find out won't they?

Today's visitors are mainly those whose grades have not got them a place anywhere. We talk about the options - retakes from school, the local FE college, maybe different subjects in a one-year course, travel, or finding a job. They are gradually coming to terms with their results. It's difficult to do, but they feel much better when they realise that they can move on and that life has not come to an end.

Things begin to quieten down but there are still enough queries to keep me busy. One student has got the grades for his insurance choice but his father has said he will not support him going there as it is not a "proper" university. Most have places but they have been noticeably more choosy this year.

My day ends with a large box of chocolates from a grateful pupil. I go home and try to get back into holiday mode for a few more days.

Bridget Patterson is head of sixth form careers at Northgate High School, Ipswich, Suffolk

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