Exams doctor: What if you don't get the grades?

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As tens of thousands of students await A-level results, George Turnbull, the "Exams Doctor" for the qualifications watchdog Ofqual, gives his advice on what to do if you don't get the grades you need.

Man with head in hands (actor)
Image caption,
Students who don't get the grades they need are advised to look forward and not despair

The Met Office's promise of a 'barbecue summer' never materialised last year - and coveted university places this year may not either - for an estimated 150,000 of the 660,000 or so teenagers seeking a place.

With an additional 45,000 applications pending from last year and a 23% increase in the over-40s applying, it is not difficult to predict that it is going to be a tight squeeze to get through that door if any A-level grades fall short of the mark.

Add to this the stretch and challenge of the new A* grade, awarded for the first time this year, which will put some high flyers a notch higher than the rest.

For those outperforming their predicted grades, there is a five-day window of opportunity to seek a place on more competitive courses, through the process known as Adjustment detailed here on the Ucas website.

Good news for some, perhaps, but the current pressure on places leaves little room for manoeuvre.

So if you are one of the ones who did not quite make it, then the pressure is on for you to secure a place.

You only have a few days to do something about your situation, and so you need to work fast, or consider other options.

In general, universities hold offers open until the end of August and so any re-marks or enquiries about your results need to be done and dusted by then - or you could lose out.

On results day...

  • You should be at your school to pick up your results: That way you can speak to your teachers about re-marks and other services available if necessary. Such requests must be channelled through the school. For A-levels, a 'priority' post-result service is available if an enquiry is lodged within a week. Make sure that someone in the school has the matter in hand and is taking action. And if you are still sunning yourself on a beach in Australia, have another plan in place so that action can be taken to rectify your situation.
  • Be ready for any eventuality - good or bad. If you have applied through Ucas, then be prepared to move quickly and have your tracking number and other details at the ready. Set time aside to visit new universities, should the need arise. If you need to choose a new course, then Ucas offers advice here.
  • Universities have your results before you do, so you could hear very soon after the results are released, as to whether you have a place or not. If you have not heard, then phone the university or use the Ucas system to track progress.
  • If you do not get onto that first choice dream course, then you may get offered a place with your insurance or second choice option. You are allowed up to five choices of university on your Ucas application. But if you are not offered a place at any of those, or you have declined an offer, you will automatically go into the process known as clearing.
  • Clearing will put you in the market for available courses at other universities. Get your results as early as you can in the day to give you a head start in the scramble for places, and read some tips on interviews, like these on the Student Room, before you call university hotlines. Persevere - but do not get your mother, or anyone else, to phone on your behalf, the universities do not like it and it may spoil your chances. They want to speak to you!
  • You may be offered diploma or foundation courses leading to a degree later. Think carefully before accepting. Higher education is expensive and other options will be available. Visit any new university prospect to make sure that it is right for you. Don't grab at straws by just taking anything that you are offered.
  • If all else fails, then it is time for plan B. There are many options available: gap year, work - voluntary or paid - starting a business, apprenticeship, further education - or sailing round the world single-handed, as a 14-year-old Dutch girl is now attempting to do. Explore some of the possibilities on the Ucas website, through the Connexions careers service and www.notgoingtouni.co.uk.
  • Look forward and not back. What would Richard Branson be doing now, if he had been persuaded to follow that university trail? Those opportunities are still there today, for those who take them. That could be you.

Could the examining board have got it wrong?

Yes, is the short answer.

Mistakes do happen - important especially as one mark might make the difference between an A and a B - and although this could hardly be judged as an error as such, that extra mark would give a higher grade, and perhaps secure that elusive place.

Extreme measures are taken to ensure the accuracy of the grades awarded - and that they truly reflect each student's abilities - on the basis of the exam work submitted. The independent regulator, Ofqual, will monitor the whole process. It is a truly professional operation with fairness, rigour, and the interests of students at its heart.

But with an estimated 26m A-level and GCSE examination papers from 1m students to be marked by 50,000 examiners and then graded, it is perhaps conceivable that something may give, on occasion, despite the elaborate network of checks, double checks and scrutinies built into the system.

Challenging your grades

Marking is not an exact science and wherever human judgement is brought to bear, there will be professional differences of opinion, which the boards endeavour to ensure are kept to a minimum.

If a paper was re-marked and the examiner awarded an additional mark which produced a higher grade - if that paper were marked yet again, it may well revert to the original mark and grade.

Challenging your grades is relatively straightforward, but as previously explained, only your school can do this on your behalf, by raising an enquiry about your results with the exam board.

Such action needs to be approved by you as your grades can go up as well as down, or simply remain as they are.

Generally speaking, if you are already at the bottom of a grade band, the loss of a mark will put you down a grade, and a lot of marks would need to be gained in order to get you onto a higher grade level. A fee is charged for these services.

Deadline dates and costs

Your school can request photocopies of exam scripts, or actual scripts. It can ask for a clerical check from around £13 and a re-mark from about £42 for A-level, per unit. The check will ensure that marks are recorded and transferred correctly and that totals are correct - whereas re-marks entail the re-marking of your script by a senior examiner.

Priority re-marks can be requested too from around £50 per unit, for those A-level students with university or college places at stake.

Fees generally will vary across the boards, but the closing date for priority A-level re-marking is commonly set by all boards at 27 August, and all other requests are to be received by 20 September.

Fees are mostly paid by the school and will be refunded if there is a grade change.

But if you are still unhappy because your grades are unchanged, lowered or not raised enough, your school can take the matter further by lodging an appeal with the examining board.

An internal investigation would then be held in up to two stages, the latter stage involving an independent scrutineer.

If the matter is still not resolved, then the case could be taken by your school to an external and independent appeal through the Examinations Appeals Board (EAB).

But that entire process will not be completed in time to affect your grades for entry to university or college this year. And only a handful of cases ever get this far.

For more advice

Phone the National Exam Results Helpline on 0808 100 8000 for expert independent advice on clearing and other options free for land-line callers.

Or you can contact me at examsdoctor@ofqual.gov.uk for a personal and detailed response to your questions. Or visit my web page.

George Turnbull is Ofqual's Exams Doctor and takes questions from students and the general public on examinations and related issues. For almost 30 years he held various senior positions with the UK's largest examining board.

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