Theoretically, Luton Sixth-Form College does not open for students to pick up A-level results until 8am.
By 7.30am, two students are already waiting outside. The principal, Chris Nicholls, invites them in. One of them, a blonde girl, lingers in the doorway. In front of her, a box of brown envelopes waits on the table. She walks towards the table. Then she stops and lingers again. Finally, biting her lip, she steps forwards to take her envelope.
By 8am, the hall is crowded. This is moderately surprising, Mr Nicholls says: the results have been available to students online since 6.30am.
“They can do the whole thing lying in bed,” he says. “Then turn over and go to sleep. But some of them like to come in. It’s their last time in the college. Well, you hope it is, anyway.”
The moment of truth
Gemma Dunford, 19, is among the early-arriving students. “I looked up nothing,” she says. “I knew nothing.” She had accidentally locked herself out of her college account over the summer, and so had to wait until she was confronted with her brown envelope of truth.
“I got my teacher to open my envelope for me,” she says. “I couldn’t do it. I was just looking at the floor until she said, ‘It’s good.' Then I looked at them.”
Next to her, 18-year-old Ella Wood is eager to pick up her results from college, despite already having seen online that she achieved two As and a B. "I just needed paper confirmation that it was real," she says. "Just in case. I trust the computer, but I trust the papers a little bit more."
Behind Ella, two boys walk into the hall. One is handed his envelope; he stands swinging it by his side, while he waits for his friend to be given his. Then, envelopes still swinging, they walk out of the hall. In the entrance, they bump into some friends; they stand and chat for a while, unopened envelopes hanging at their sides.
“I went to the car park, and there are three fathers waiting there,” says Cherry Newbery, the college’s chair of governors. “It’s like a maternity ward: expectant fathers, pacing up and down.”
A buyers' market
On the whole, says Mr Nicholls, students – and their parents – can afford to feel optimistic. “The whole environment has changed dramatically in the last few years,” he says. “Universities have gone from rationing to recruiting, so it’s become much more of a buyers’ market.”
But, he adds, there has also been uncertainty over the introduction of non-modular A and AS levels. “Experiments for governments might be about learning and adapting and making changes,” he says. “But these young people only get one life chance.”
Eighteen-year-old Dhylan Chohan is keenly aware of this. Last year, Dhylan received two Us and a C in his AS levels. He realised that he needed to make some changes; today, he is beaming over a print-out showing A grades in psychology and media studies, and a B grade in science.
“This morning was the first time I saw my dad cry,” he says. “It was so weird. So weird. It was surreal.
“I haven’t sorted out my university accommodation, because I didn’t think I’d get in. Luckily, my grandparents live nearby. But it’s going to be a bit tragic, staying with them through freshers’ week, because they’re old-school.”
Dhylan sees his psychology teacher, Liz Brookes, and rushes over to hug her: “My favourite teacher,” he says. “I could get into trouble for this,” Ms Brookes says, disentangling herself.
While there have been a few surprises – some of them, like Dhylan, pleasant, others less so – Ms Brookes says that results have, on the whole, been exactly as she had anticipated.
“There are no miracles,” she says. “Most of the time, if you work, you get the grades. If you don’t work, you don’t get the grades.”
This is something that – tactfully – Katrina Wilkinson tries to tell pupils, too. Ms Wilkinson is staffing a desk labelled “results queries”. There is a steady queue of pupils in front of the desk. Many, Ms Wilkinson says, come to her with lower-than-expected grades, asking whether they should request a re-mark.
Last year, 99 papers were re-marked. Of those, nine grades were changed. “It’s not cheap for them,” she says. “That’s why I try and tell them to save their money.”