The final year of school is always stressful but at least it follows a familiar template: revision, exams, results, and – hopefully – celebrations. For this year’s A-level students, however, everything they hoped for has been turned on its head by the coronavirus pandemic.
Sixth-formers now have to make important decisions based on uncertain information: will their teacher-assessed grades be lower? Will they still get their place at university? Will they need to take exams in the autumn? When will they even know? They need to decide on their first choice of university by 18 June, although some universities will still consider applications after that to defer for a year.
‘Will my teachers give me the grades?’
Emily Emiru, St Olave’s grammar school, south-east London
Thousands of A-level students could lose their unconditional university offers
“I was in hospital at the start of the year for eight days, and I was off school for more than a month. If there’s been any disruption to your education they usually give you extra marks in your A-levels but now I have no idea what to expect.
I am worried I won’t get my grades through teacher marks, so I was thinking I would take the option of sitting exams in the autumn term. But the government hasn’t said when. If it’s in September, maybe people would be able to do the exams and still go to university, but if it’s November then term will already have started. I was hoping to go to Nottingham University in September to do economics.
You look forward to university, and to suddenly not have a clue whether or not you’re going and the next steps for what you want to do is frustrating. And it’s hard to prepare for exams when you don’t even know when they are or how they’re going to work. I’d rather take a year out to get the grades I need rather than just settle for less.
If I do get my grades, I will still go to university – but I’m worried now whether it will be what I’d hoped for. Part of it is making friends, trying new activities, getting the first experience of living away from home, kind of like a taste of adulthood. If you’re doing university online that’s not the same.”
‘What stresses me is all the uncertainty’
Delilah Pearson, Colyton grammar school, Colyton, Devon
“I was planning to study Arabic and business at Edinburgh University starting this year. But the coronavirus situation has given me time to think about whether the decision is right for me.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to do a gap year now. I don’t want to start university with online teaching. I think for learning a new language from scratch, having face-to-face teaching is important. Another big factor is the social side, because Scotland is the opposite end of the country from where I am now. If you’re unable to go out and mix that causes isolation and you just feel a bit lonely, which isn’t how you want to feel when you’re embarking on a new adventure.
So do I reject my offer? Or do I defer? What most stresses me is all the uncertainty. I don’t even know whether that’s still the course I want to do – I’m thinking of studying international relations now.
I’m trying to find a job, which is tricky because so is the rest of the world. If I worked and built up some money I’d like to visit the Middle East in my gap year, but I don’t know how travel restrictions will pan out.
My parents have been very understanding. It’s all I ever seem to talk about: school and uni and how everything’s going to pan out. It’s always at the forefront of my mind. I’m just trying to get everything off my chest and trying to understand more clearly what I want to do.”
‘If I have to wear a mask, I’ll wear a mask’
Harry Jaconelli, Scarborough sixth-form college, Scarborough
“The course I’ve applied for, applied chemistry and chemical engineering at the University of Strathclyde, is the only one in the country. I wouldn’t change my decision because the course is exactly right for me, and I think if that’s the case you’ll be able to get through whatever adversities are put in your way. Yes, people are saying social distancing could go on for years, but it’s pointless worrying about two to three years into the future. The course is fantastic and if I have to wear a mask, I have to wear a mask.
I would feel quite disappointed if it was entirely online. In the first year there’s a great deal of social interaction outside the course. It’s also difficult to teach practical subjects like chemistry online – you can’t expect people to set up labs in their bedrooms or there’d be a lot of university students missing eyebrows.
What we have to remember is: everyone’s in the same boat. Everyone won’t have had a freshers week, won’t have met new people. But it’ll just be delayed. Where that starts to change is if the entire first year is online. Then you’ll be more likely to make friends on your course rather than people who you live with, so you won’t have as diverse a friendship circle.
Teachers say if you get the grades just go to the university, don’t worry about taking the exams, which is sound advice. Some teachers say you might want to keep your hand in, in terms of revision for autumn exams in case you don’t get what you want. I slightly disagree, because if you try to revise all that time you’re going to burn out.”
‘I’ve discovered I like history’
Emily Jenkins, Newport Girls’ High School, Shropshire
“To pass the time in lockdown I started looking into different history subjects, which has made me question whether in applying for computer science, I applied for the right degree. I studied the Golden Age of Spain for my coursework, but my A-level curriculum skipped multiple events and characters, such as Queen Juana “the Mad” of Castile, who I found really interesting. I really enjoyed delving into a more detailed version of the past and that’s led me to reconsider my degree. I enjoy the discussion side of history and that there’s no right answer, whereas computer science can be very black and white.
The university I applied to was in Scotland, and I’m now looking at other universities, including Oxbridge, to study history. I’m scared of losing the place I already have, though, as I know the competition will be tougher next year. I’m waiting to get my grades to make a final choice – whether to defer or go through clearing. If I defer, I’ll spend a year continuing to look into history and who I want to be, now I don’t have to worry about exams.
It has been sad that all the final events I was going to have with my friends have been taken away, but as the world has been going more online we’ve found new ways of reaching out to each other. So although it has taken some of the expectations of leaving school I had, it’s given me a sense of community I didn’t have before.”
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