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Don't panic: these are the days of lifelong learning

What should pupils do when they open their exam results envelope and realise they didn't get the required grades? Call Careers Scotland, writes Raymond Ross

his week teenagers across Scotland received their Standard and Higher grade results. Some face the problem of what to do since they did not get the grades they need - or think they need - for the course they applied to take. A few, who have grades better than expected, will want to try for a course with higher entrance qualifications.

Over the past 11 years about 40,000 pupils have been making use of Careers Scotland's One Life exam results helpline, a freephone number which puts them in touch with expert advisers who have the latest information on course vacancies at colleges and universities across the UK. They can also give guidance on resitting exams, time out from education, Scottish vocational qualifications and apprenticeships.

The helpline is a single-tier system so that pupils normally only have to deal with the one adviser. Only in exceptional circumstances would they be passed on.

"The helpline was set up to pool expertise and ensure pupils and students know where and when to call to get the advice they need," says Bill Drew, the head of information and business development at Careers Scotland.

"The first piece of advice to give a pupil is don't panic. If the results are not what you expected, it is not the end of the world. These are the days of lifelong learning.

"The second piece of advice is act now; don't delay. Pick up the phone and dial the exam helpline."

The bulk of the calls from anxious pupils and worried parents come in the first two days of the results coming out. There are 36 lines open from 8am to 8pm to deal with the flood of calls. Now until August 22 there will be 18 lines open daily from 10am to 6pm. The operation involves 120 staff, who are all Careers Scotland professionals.

"It's very intensive, especially in the first two days, but most people seem to get through quickly if not immediately," says Mr Drew, a former recruitment consultant, careers officer and education manager.

"The universities admissions service has set up an IT network for us so that all our advisers have access to every pupil's live status in UCAS clearing. The pupils don't have to give us details because it's all there on our computer screens, where they've applied and what courses, etc, so we can cut straight to the chase.

"This access is unique in Scotland but only for the duration of the 12-day process, for personal security and data protection reasons. It enables us to get to the heart of the issue at what can be an anxious time for young people."

The helpline is advertised on television, national and local radio, in newspapers and at presenting centres and it is the only flyer included with the SQA results. "That means that every pupil should be aware of the helpline," Mr Drew says, "but knowing about it and using it are two different things. Parents and teachers might need to encourage pupils not to panic and to give us a ring.

"Parents can call, and do, especially if their child is distressed. We can talk to parents first and then to the pupil. Sometimes people are in tears but our staff are trained to deal with this, indeed the whole gamut of emotions.

"For example, pupils can be elated and completely surprised by how well they've done and might want to get into courses which they didn't apply for initially because they felt the grades required were beyond them. This is possible within the clearing system but our impartial advisers are very experienced and know when to proceed with caution."

Most of the calls, however, come from pupils who feel they haven't made the grade. "But this isn't necessarily the case," Mr Drew says. "If a pupil gets just less than they've been asked for for a certain course, it's still worth a call to the university or college.

"Pupils often assume there is no room for negotiation but there can be, depending on factors like numbers and how well the particular pupil might have interviewed. Negotiation can bring results."

Last summer, a student from Edinburgh was expecting good Higher results.

"But they were worse than I had expected. My grades weren't good enough to get into my first choice of course or university.

"My mum persuaded me to call the exam results helpline and the careers adviser calmed me down and talked through my options. She helped me to find a place on a similar course at the same university. If I hadn't called, I think I would have just given up."

A student from Paisley says: "I didn't get the Higher results that I needed to study electrical engineering and I didn't know what to do. I called the helpline and the adviser talked me through the other universities that offered courses in engineering. She helped me to find a place at another university studying the course I wanted."

A teenager from Lenzie says: "I was not accepted to study teaching, which was my first career choice. However, when I received my exam results and discovered I had five good Highers, I called the helpline and they talked me through my options.

"The careers adviser gave some clarity to my situation and I decided that higher education wasn't right for me at that time. I've got a great job in sales with an engineering company in Glasgow.

"I would recommend the helpline to anyone who has just received their exam results and is unsure of their next step. The careers adviser will be able to give you the facts in an impartial way."

The advisers, who work in the careers information centre in Stirling, also gain from the helpline experience, Mr Drew says. "They know they are making a difference, that they are at the cutting edge of someone's education, of someone's life. It's very fulfilling and we often get immediate feedback from the pupils too."

This was confirmed on Tuesday when students who called for advice in the morning telephoned back later in the day with words of thanks. Margaret Graham, the information co-ordinator, says: "We have had several people calling back to say 'I phoned your helpline this morning and I've just heard I got a place at university'. That's great to hear and it's really nice for the staff to get some positive feedback."

Such calls come from parents as well. "Parents also appreciate the help we can give," Mrs Graham says. "It's a stressful time for them. The whole education and exam system is different to when they were at school so they appreciate the help and advice."

She says the telephone lines were busy from the moment they opened at 8am.

"We have been very busy. We had taken over 1,500 calls by 4pm."

The call rates were what they expected, Mr Drew says. "We dealt with over 1,000 people by lunchtime and that's what we were predicting from last year." By the end of the first day the team of advisers had taken 2052 calls. "With regards to the kind of queries we are getting, the bulk are from people who haven't done quite as well as they expected and there are some who have done much worse than they expected. Our main aim is to help them calm down; they feel as if it's the end of the world.

"We have had students calling and we've had sisters, grannies, parents, all calling on behalf of students who were too distressed to talk, but eventually we end up speaking to them. Either the phone is handed over or they call back later. We help them and reassure them. That's what our staff are here for."

Careers Scotland One Life helpline, tel 0800 100 8000, open daily 10am-6pm until August

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