The class of ‘23: worst off school-leavers yet?

The generation who lost critical months of schooling and weren’t able to sit their GCSEs now approaching a dysfunctional university

A Levels
The cohort‘s A levels this year were their first public examinations
(Image credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

“One of the hardest parts of growing up is learning that life is not fair,” said the Evening Standard. This year’s cohort of A-level students, though, will have grasped that lesson with no difficulty whatsoever.

This is the generation who lost critical months of schooling in Years 10 and 11 due to pandemic closures, and weren’t able to sit their GCSEs. Their A levels this year were their first public examinations – yet, unlike the previous three years, they missed out on the more generous teacher-assessed grades: the Government decided that a return to tighter pre-pandemic standards of A-level marking in England was needed (Wales and Northern Ireland put it off for another year).

As a result, said Tara Cobham in The Independent, the proportion of A* and A grades awarded in England slumped from 35.9% to 26.5%, while that of low grades surged. More university applicants than ever (nearly 48,000) failed to get a place, leaving them to take their chances in the clearing system. However, 79% of UK applicants did gain a place at their first-choice institution, down only marginally from 81% last year, and higher than in 2019.

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‘Bordering on madness’

“At some point, A-level grades had to be returned to their pre-Covid standards in order to retain their credibility,” said Martin Stephen in The Daily Telegraph. But unfortunately, “we have moved to rectify that problem too quickly”, inflicting “yet another blow on the lockdown generation”. That the quality of one’s grades depends on which part of the UK one took the exam in is “bordering on madness”.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan tried to reassure disappointed pupils by telling them employers won’t care about their A-level results “in ten years’ time”, said The Guardian. Of course, no one wants exams to “make or break” young people’s lives. But it’s still a “bizarre” argument for someone in her job to make. Good exam results build “self-esteem and a sense that hard work is rewarded”, and shape future life chances. Alas, this year’s results confirm that “a gulf” is widening “between the most- and least-deprived pupils, and between independent and state schools”.

‘Return to normality’

No one would blame this year’s crop of school-leavers for “feeling hard done by”, said Alan Smithers in the Evening Standard. But the return to normality is “actually good news”. Whereas “wildly over-generous” marking led to misjudgements and higher drop-out rates at universities, students – as well as admissions officers and employers – will once again have a sound basis for making decisions.

All those who passed their exams deserve congratulations, said The Times – but also sympathy: those heading to university now enter a troubled sector beset by underfunding, accommodation shortages and the “disgraceful” marking boycott by lecturers at 145 institutions. “This year’s school-leavers did well to gain A levels in a tough climate; they do not deserve to have university life ruined as well.”

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