Experience is the best teacher, so the cliché assures us. With further specificity, another cliché enjoins us to walk a mile in another’s shoes.
My experience of results day as a parent has taught me more than my experience of results day as a principal.
As a headteacher, I receive A-level and GCSE results early, in aggregated as well as analysed form. There is the midnight fist pump of celebration as the spreadsheets arrive and the little triumphs pop into view. The candidate statements lead to the compilation of a hand written list of those who have done brilliantly and those who are potentially “in trouble”.
I am early into school after the midnight excitement, and the data manger has collated it all, made a prediction about Progress 8, added value, compared results to predictions, produced graphs of historical trends. It is all sliced and diced. He must have stayed up all night.
It is now that the worrying begins. Some pupils have fallen short of offers but the entire team remembers the experiences of previous years: all these kids will be alright by 5pm on Thursday. This is the message of comfort we cling to.
But this time, it was my daughter’s name which appeared among those who had fallen short, and the words of hope and encouragement from colleagues seemed oddly laden with doom. My daughter and I had agreed we could not be in the same place whilst I knew her results and she was still waiting to discover hers. By 8:15am on Thursday morning, when we finally saw each other, she was in clearing. It later transpired she had fallen a mark short in biology, a grade eventually changed and moved up.
Sheer desperation and deflation
Here were all the feelings and emotions and actions which I had witnessed with a certain stoic curiosity in others, thrust upon me and my nearest and dearest. The scrambled phone calls , the impassioned pleas to universities, the tears, the hugs and huddles of gaggles of commiserating friends and pupils. The call backs form harried admissions tutors, the sheer desperation and deflation in my daughter, and in me.
A year of plans, interviews, open day visits appeared shattered. There was no plan B or C or D. Nor a telephone call to explain a decision, or offer of advice from the rejecting universities. Like many parents and pupils we faced a dramatic reversal by looking at a silent and seemingly implacable computer screen.
Why do we allow this system to persist, I concluded by 3pm. Panic had taken hold and my daughter lying exhausted on the living room floor had fielded an unsolicited call from a university I had never heard of offering her a place. Universities which had rejected her were now in touch saying they would hold a place awaiting your remark. We had landed in absurd limbo into which this one errant mark from some errant marker can determine one’s destination.
By 5pm she had been offered and accepted a very good place, and people said, and will now continue to say: “See, it always works out in the end”.
We had briefly glimpsed the chance of a clearing place at this university on the UCAS page and called their clearing number. A helpful person said that unfortunately my daughter had no chance. I urged her to call the faculty secretary and ask again. 45 minutes later she was in. I wondered what would have happened if we had not made that call, or which other unfortunates had simply taken that first refusal as authoritative and definitive.
But in truth, despite the very happy ending, the experience of this results day confirmed for me that the monopolistic system that is UCAS and all its associated works are totally rotten.
'The system is absurd'
It is absurd to compel pupils to only accept two offers. My daughter has ended up at a university whose offer she had declined after agonised decision, and an offer which was identical to the ones of the universities which had now refused her and put her into clearing.
It is equally absurd to make conditional offers where the conditions can be so completely broken as to render them meaningless. Several pupils in our school fell short of their offers by three or even four grades, their chosen universities took them anyway. These “high offers” when the real offer is much lower looks suspiciously like a deceptive marketing ploy to me. Other universities did not accept even a pause for a remark before rejection, no matter how close to the boundary. There was and is no way of knowing which university would do what, or why.
It is nonsense to suggest to a pupil in clearing that they should not panic and take their time. I checked my daughter’s course clearing vacancies a few days after she had accepted her place. Most were gone. My daughter's place had only appeared on UCAS clearing for about 20 minutes. These timescales hardly suggest there is time for sober reflection.
One of our pupils was approached, unsolicited and unexpectedly, by a medical school from which he had been rejected. They pointed out that his results were very good; better indeed than some of the students they had given offers to. Would he like to turn up at the university tomorrow and be interviewed for a place?
Another pupil noticed that a university which had rejected his UCAS application was now in clearing asking for much lower grades for his course than at the time of application. So he went into adjustment and told his first choice university he would not be coming, despite having achieved his offer.
The lack of transparency in the process, the panic and disorder of results and clearing day for pupils and universities, and the unbelievably arbitrary consequences of meaningless conditional offers and marker error all point to the need for fundamental reform.
The system is geared to the convenience and equanimity of universities. UCAS is a university run system, the students, their needs and their experiences seem to count for very little. Any other industry selling a £9,000 per annum product would not get away with these restrictive and anti-consumer practices.
In the now linear A-level system, we should sit the exams a little earlier, mark them a little quicker, (even with the considerable number of weeks available, initial marking remains of very variable quality) and allow pupils to submit their results to all their chosen universities who should not make conditional offers but only firm ones based on the actual results.
This would not preclude universities interviewing and encouraging pupils to apply. It might be more work for them, but would lead to better matches between students and universities. The system would be more humane, and more transparent, and ultimately better for both students and universities.
As for the ways I need to reform my own behaviour on results day, from now on I shall spend less time congratulating the successful and instead spend the entire day with pupils who are in clearing. It is not a nice place to be.
Hans van Mourik Broekman is the principal of Liverpool College