A-levels: Student foresaw exam crisis in winning story

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Image source, Jessica Johnson
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Jessica Johnson won an Orwell Youth Prize last year for her story A Band Apart

An award-winning writer whose dystopian fiction about an algorithm that sorts students into bands based on class says she has "fallen into my own story".

Jessica Johnson, 18, said the University of St Andrews had initially rejected her after her English A-level was downgraded from an A to B.

Exams this year were cancelled due to Covid and grades based on an algorithm.

Ms Johnson said it was "ironic to become a victim like one of her characters".

Her piece, A Band Apart, won an Orwell Youth Prize Senior award in 2019.

"I wrote about the inequality in the education system," the Ashton Sixth Form College student said.

"I wrote about the myth of meritocracy and it was about an algorithm that split people into bands based on the class that they were from.

"I feel like that is quite ironic, I've literally fallen into my own story."

"I feel a victim of it," she added.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
There have been a number of protests over A-level grades after exams were cancelled due to the pandemic

Ms Johnson, of Stalybridge, Greater Manchester, needed an A in English Literature for a place at St Andrews and a £16,000 scholarship.

"I've done a lot of extra-curricular work and I've been given that scholarship on the basis of my achievements and it just felt like all of that [has] been taken away from me because of the place I live and the college I attend," she said.

About 40% of A-level results - published on Thursday - were downgraded from teachers' assessments by exams regulator Ofqual, which used a formula based on schools' prior grades.

Following protests, the government has now said teacher estimates will be used and Ms Johnson is hoping she will get in at St Andrews.

She said she was "thankful" and "excited" about the government's U-turn but felt it should have been done sooner.

"It's caused a lot of stress and anxiety that it didn't need to by making us wait," she said.

Professor Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation, praised Ms Johnson's "prescient story".

She said the teenager "saw into the heart of what the system represents and her story demonstrates the human ability which exams only exist to uncover".

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