Northern Lights: The dangers of highlighting A-level results with a splash in the media


It’s results season.

New week, 18-year-olds across the country will be receiving their A-level results. The press will be full of photographs of delighted faces in schools and colleges all around the country. There’ll be extraordinary stories of outstanding achievement. For many people, the day they receive their A-level results is a day to remember: a day which shaped their future. Within weeks, they will be off to university, embarking on advanced studies which may well shape their lives. The week of summer exam results has become a fixture in the national media calendar.

There is a problem with the A- level results coverage. Some people will be disappointed by their results . They have futures too - futures which are as important as anyone else’s.

It wasn’t always like this.

Until not much more than a decade and a half ago, media interest in A-level results was pretty limited. The ritual of turning up to school or college to get your results largely passed unnoticed. Go back not much further and you can understand why. A generation ago, a minority of young people did A-levels: when they were introduced, in 1951, it was for something like one in ten or fewer of the population. I can remember getting my own A-level results exactly 40 years ago, but there was no media interest. But times have changed. As more and more young people have stayed at school so the media interest has grown.

I’ve got mixed feelings about it. A-levels are demanding. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Success is hard won and it’s important to celebrate it. As someone who has spent a working lifetime in education, I think it is great to see education success celebrated across mainstream media. I want to congratulate all our young people whose hard work, determination and application has brought them success.

And yet I’m uneasy about media coverage which seems to focus on achievement rather than effort. I’m uneasy about the fact that journalists seem to rejoice in what is, after all, a narrow measure of success. Over the past few weeks, many students have received the results of BTEC courses – more applied, vocational courses at the equivalent level to A-levels – no media circus celebrating BTEC achievements. Growing numbers of young people are following an apprenticeship route – no media circus celebrating apprenticeship achievement. We are letting our young people down if we allow the A-level results focus – and, indeed, the GCSE focus which will come a week later – to shape the way we think about success for young people.

So while I will offer my heartiest congratulations to those who have succeeded next week, I also hanker after a more restrained and balanced approach to success, recognising the diversity of achievement by all our young people. After all, we are going to need all of them to succeed as adults. And there is another problem about the A-level results coverage. Not everyone will get the results they hope for. Anyone who knows anything about examinations and assessment understands that any assessment is a crude tool. Some young people will be disappointed by their results. They have futures too – and futures which are as important as anyone else’s. Some of the most successful adults – professionally and personally – are those for whom, for whatever reason, assessment results at 18 didn’t work out. Their trajectory didn’t stop as a result.

The other important message about A-level results day – whether you are a parent, student or friend – is not to despair if the results aren’t what you would have wanted, or if you are only just deciding that you want to apply to university. There are options. Increasingly, all universities are interested in students looking for a second chance. Clearing and adjustment activity will be intense on results day – for those who have exceeded their expected results; for those for whom the results have not worked out as hoped and for those who are only just deciding what they want to do.

Universities take clearing and adjustment very seriously.

My colleagues at Sheffield Hallam are extraordinarily thorough about their work. They, like those at the University of Sheffield, as elsewhere, will be at work on A-level results day matching students to courses and talking to students about their results, their strengths and their options. It’s important for those in this position to make contact early and to discuss their results with university staff. There are options and choices which you may not have thought about before, and you should take time to think carefully about them.

Clearing at Sheffield Hallam University is open now and can be contacted on 0330 0246390. Sheffield Hallam Clearing Open Days will be taking place on August 19 and 22. Visit for further details.

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