The Frustrating Reality of Getting A-Level Grades Without Doing Exams

This weekend, thousands took to the streets to voice their anger.
A-Level results day 2020
Jawwad and Abubakar

“Yo, have you logged into UCAS Track?”

I’m woken up by a phone call from my friend Jawwad and quickly try to log in to my UCAS account to see if I’ve got into my first choice uni, but the site has crashed. I’m not surprised – it’s A-Level results day: thousands of 18-year-olds are visiting the site, desperately trying to find out their fate.

Back in pre-lockdown March, Boris Johnson announced that all schools would close that week and summer exams would be cancelled. I remember watching the announcement and sending voice notes to group chats because I couldn’t convey my excitement through text. No more stress, homework, revision sessions – it was every student’s dream. Then, uncertainty and fear slowly started to kick in as rumours circulated that mock assessments would be used to determine grades. I quickly realised: I may be fucked.


I meet Jawwad by the local Tesco, where we always link up before walking to school. To maintain social distancing, our school had sent us specific time slots to collect our results, and we’d both been given the 8:45 AM slot.

“Can you believe this is the last time we’ll ever be walking to school?” Jawwad asks me. It takes a while to sink in: I’ve been at my school for seven years and have taken this specific route over 1,000 times (literally, I’ve done the maths).

I’ve known Jawwad since Year 7, but we grew closer during our GCSEs. There’s always been a competitive streak to our friendship: in Year 11 we competed to see who could get the most grade 9s in mocks, which pushed us both to work a little harder. Two years later, he now has an offer to study Economics at Warwick, but needs A*AA to secure his place. Despite the ambiguity surrounding grades, he is quietly confident.

I have an offer to study PPE at Balliol, Oxford. I need AAA, which I’m confident I would have secured had I sat my exams, but under the Ofqual algorithm – which takes predicted grades (based on mock assessments and classwork) and standardises them based on a student ranking system and your school’s past performance – there is a real chance I may miss my offer. I’d put most of my efforts into the Oxford application process, which consisted of an entrance exam and a gruelling four-day interview, so mocks weren’t exactly my main priority.


After a short walk, we reach the school’s main entrance. We’re told to walk into the main hall in groups of five, collect our results and, if we need to go through clearing, make our way to the library, or leave via the main gates if we’re happy with our results. I grab my envelope and head to a quiet corner of the hall. If I miss my Oxford offer, my plan B is something both Oxbridge rejects and Dominic Cummings are familiar with: the long drive up to Durham.

I open my results. Economics: A*, Maths: A, History: B. I’ve missed my offer by one grade, but am relieved to get an email saying Oxford has still accepted me. The atmosphere in the room is sombre, and it feels wrong to celebrate. I scan the room and find Jawwad. “Yo, what did you get?” “ABB”. Luckily, Warwick have still given him a place, but he’s visibly disappointed, slightly angry and, mostly, confused.

“This don’t make sense, man. I’m heartbroken. I got a perfect GCSE record [a straight set of grade 9s], so I don’t know how Ofqual have come up with these grades”.

Throughout the day, I hear more stories of students whose grades just don’t make sense, and that a number of kids from my school have to go through clearing after being rejected from all their unis.

Almost 40 percent of results were downgraded, and there were concerns that the algorithm would hit state school kids that hardest. Helena attends a comprehensive state school in Harrow and had an offer to study Spanish at Oxford. She was predicted A*AA and needed three As to meet her offer. Under the grading system, she got ACC.


“It’s disappointing,” she says, “I know I’m not a C student.”

She has been rejected by both Oxford and her insurance choice uni, and spends results day calling up different universities to see if they have any spaces.

Lubna, from South Ealing, is in a similar predicament. She studies Biology, Chemistry, Maths and History, and was predicted A*AAA by her teachers. She had worked hard to receive an offer to study Biology at Imperial, and was shocked when she got the grades DDBB.

“I got a D in biology, which is what I want to study at uni, so even through clearing no uni will accept me,” she says. She feels like has no option but to retake the entire year.

It’s not just prospective university students who have lost out to the grading system. Felipe, from Peckham, went to a college in Islington and was predicted ABC in Spanish, Media and Business, respectively. He got BED.

“I’m a native Spanish speaker, so a B is a shock – I’m 100 percent fluent!” he says. He was hoping to do a business apprenticeship, but has been forced to take a gap year, with no real idea of what he’s going to do next. “I used to travel over an hour every day to college to get these grades… I feel like I’ve wasted two years of my life.”

The algorithm, say multiple commentators, has exposed the inequality within the British education system. Ofqual claims there was no bias in the standardisation model, but admitted that in schools with smaller class sizes, teacher predictions would be given more weight. Therefore, the model was always going to benefit private schools, which have smaller class sizes. And sure enough: private schools saw the greatest increase in the proportion of students getting high grades.


Another algorithm, says me, shows something else – when you take a poor Tory leadership, multiply it by shoddy Ofqual decisions and add a bit of classism to the mix, you are left with one thing: thousands of pissed off teenagers who want answers.

Photo: Abubakar Finiin

This weekend, despite the grey skies, hundreds of students took to the streets demanding that the government make a U-turn and use centre-assessed grades (teacher predictions) to determine grades instead. There were heart-breaking scenes as, one-by-one, students told their stories of exam grade injustice.

One girl broke down in tears as her dreams of getting into medical school were destroyed, while another explained how she was a young carer and had to look after her mum, so mocks didn’t reflect her ability. There was fury directed at the general Tory incompetence – and chants from protesters made it clear that education secretary Gavin Williamson is currently Gen Z’s most hated figure.

We’ve all been told before that “you’re not defined by a grade on a piece of paper”. That’s often difficult to believe, in an education system that built upon exam performance, but that phrase has never been so pertinent.

This weekend, Ofqual withdrew its appeal guidance that would have allowed students to use mock exam grades instead. This has only added more fuel to the inferno of student outrage. Year 11s pick up their GCSE results this Thursday, and Ofqual’s flawed algorithm is set to be used to calculate 97 percent of grades. Traditionally, Year 11s and Year 13s don’t get along in the playground, but it seems they are about to join forces in the pursuit for fair grades.

Among students, there is a clear consensus: if Gavin Williamson has the audacity to give students U grades, then he should have the confidence to make the U-turn.