22nd September 2000 at 01:00
In the annual hysteria surrounding A-level standards, the difficulties faced by some students get forgotten. This year's upper-sixth in the school where I am responsible for post-16 guidance experienced a series of tragedies which put them under great stress. In a year of almost 300 students, some will always have problems, but this year has been one we hope will not be repeated.

Last autumn, Vicky Hall was murdered in Felixstowe. Her best friend had transferred to our sixth form, as had many other of her friends. The effect on their lives was incalculable. Of course we all talked about it and had a special assembly for Vicky, but routines quickly reassert themselves and life somehow goes on. Amazingly, Vicky's friend achieved good A-level results - what sort of league table can reflect that?

In February, one of the boys was killed in a car crash. He had a close group of mates who were devastated. In our special assembly the head of the sixth form made a point of saying it was important to be able to cry. It was very moving to see at the end of that assembly the group of friends with their arms around one another weeping unashamedly. Yet again normality resumed and last month they collected their results, some of which were outstanding.

We had a girl in the sixth form suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She was sparky, determined and courageous. When she died earlier this summer it seemed unbelievable that we should again be talking to the sixth form about death. I shall not easily forget the conversation with the friend who was planning to share a flat with her after they finished school. This funeral fell on the day before a major A-level paper an we had several senior staff available in case it all proved too much for some students. But they all turned up and all sat through the exam.

There was also the girl whose best friend at another school was killed in a car crash, the student who took an overdose (luckily not fatal) and several who were seriously ill during the exam period - one of whom sat all her papers at home in bed and wept with stunned delight at her three A grades.

Results day is always emotional; a mix of jubilation and misery. This year's was more so than most as we thought of the missing students.

The sustained and consistent support they gave each other was a lesson to those of us in regular contact with them.

I had written to all the universities on behalf of those who were holding offers to explain what they had gone through and to ask for flexibility when the results came out. Many, sadly, did not answer. A few sent a circular saying that my letter had been noted. A small minority came from admissions tutors expressing sympathy and understanding.

Universities ask schools to let them know of any problems before results are published, and I do this every year. But I wonder if, in the heat of the moment, when all the phones are ringing, the files are consulted. Sometimes when I finally get through to someone to explain a student's position I get the impression that no one has the time to check anything. It would be reassuring to know there is a procedure for this sort of thing so I, and the students I advise, can feel confident that major problems are taken into consideration.

BRIDGET PATTERSON is head of post-16 giodamce at an Ipswich comprehensive.

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