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Back in August 1980, I received a shock A level result in Geography – massively below what I’d expected, several grades down in fact. My teacher and I were equally gobsmacked, as it was so far from what we expected. I had several options: i) Have the mark checked (fee, payable by yours truly, fee £moderate); ii) Have the results analysed, (fee £substantial); or iii) Accept it and move on. Those who know me will be unsurprised to learn that I chose option ii), and in fact can still remember writing the cheque for what at the time seemed a considerable sum. Fast forwarding to the outcome, I learned from my teacher a couple of weeks later that the result was wrong. The marker had failed to add up all the marks, and suffice to say that the result was a whole lot better. The fee was refunded, (although oddly no apology was received). Still, in a flash, my 1st choice University place was now open to me, and life could proceed. But the experience was something of an education of itself, if a salutary one. I can still remember my teacher’s eyes beaming as he said, “You knew!” It was a formative experience, and I guess that is how you build a life, a step at a time.

I know quite a number of students who are troubled by the way results have been awarded this year, the method of allocation having skewed the results. Downgrading has been widespread, and has disproportionately affected both students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from schools in economically challenged areas. I don’t think we ever fully appreciated before quite how important actually sitting the exam is, where the output is directly related to a student’s input. Awarding grades by algorithm can never be the same, and the output is shaped by the particular method chosen. This year, the decision to require the teacher to rank every student in order, with no joint placings allowed, has produced some extreme distortions. Accurately ranking students is a near impossibility, painful for the teacher and potentially heartbreaking for the students most badly impacted by it. One glaring example of the limitations of this method is provided by a student taking A level Spanish, who had one English and One Spanish parent, whose result was downgraded under the system used from an A* to a C.

One exam board, aqa, says on it’s web site:

We’d like to congratulate everyone receiving results in summer 2020. This summer’s resultsdays are a bit different because of the effects of coronavirus….

This year, students’ final results are based on a centre assessment grade and rank order. Centre assessment grades and rank orders were provided by teachers, and signed off by heads of centres. They were then sent to us to be standardised, and became calculated grades.

Congratulations or no, you may not be feeling so much like celebrating. There is deep concern that this year the results process will favour students attending schools with a recent history of good results, including many private schools. If you have worked very hard, as I know many students have, and set your goal on proving yourself and what you personally are capable of, this assessment method may offer a poor reflection of what you would have achieved in taking the exams.

The problem gets worse, though, as any appeals process can only be made via the school; presumably the exam boards feared being inundated if they had allowed an individual appeal. Your school may or may not decide to intercede on your behalf. Leaving aside the inherent unfairness for a moment, this falls under the category of a significant life test, which as these things so often do has come along just when you were not expecting it. As in other such tests, there can sometimes be an advantage for the individual, though granted it may not be easy to see this at first.

Challenges in life are the norm, and they are never easy. To get lower grades compared to others, especially when you strongly believe you could have achieved much better, is a slap in the face. But as with any challenge, the real result comes from how you respond to it. Do you give in, and accept that life decided early on that your luck was going to be bad, that your chosen career path has been snatched away by fickle fate, and so set lower expectations for your whole future? Or do you rally, and show your true mettle, by setting out to prove that the system that has effectively dumped on you was not only wrong, but not even up to the task of finding your measure.

I hope you will take strength from this, and learn to fight, because no great future awaits us if we simply accept that the system is always right, especially if that system should dare to suggest that we ourselves have nothing to offer. I truly believe that we do all have something to offer, and it can be something wonderful. It is a creed that I live by. Typically, great things do not happen to an individual, but that same individual can make great things happen.

Decide for yourself to take the future in your own hands, and to live up to your expectations for yourself, and who knows, you may actually exceed those expectations. Expecting things to come easily is not how great individuals are made. To reach even half of our potential is going to require some adversity. The trick is to tackle adversity head on, and navigate your way through to a better outcome.

I wish you well with your results, but in the lottery of life it would be a mistake to allow bad luck to shape your view of yourself. Tough luck is simply a necessary part of the training process every winner has to go through.