‘Worst nightmare come true': Students on life since being caught up in the 2020 A-level fiasco

Coronavirus, A-levels

James, Lucas and Gwen were students during the 2020 A-level debacle (Supplied)

Sixth-form students will find out their A-level results on Tuesday, which for the second year in a row are based entirely on teacher assessment rather than external exams, thanks to coronavirus.

Last year, after an algorithm downgraded thousands of results, intense backlash allowed students to lift their grades by accepting their teachers’ original predictions instead. But many still did not feel the marks did them or their work justice.

While some suddenly saw their plans become viable again, others’ were ripped to pieces. Some students not attached to a school or college – private candidates – struggled to get any marks at all under the system.

Those caught up in last year’s exam fiasco tell The Independent what they have been up to in the year since, including unplanned gap years, preparing for re-sits, and spending more time at home than they had hoped.

‘A worst nightmare come true’

Gwen, from Wales, was “really surprised” to receive a C in one of her A-levels last year. “I feel I was on track for an A,” she says.

Even after a U-turn allowed Welsh students to take the grades predicted by teachers, Gwen’s marks stayed the same. She wonders whether results from her mock exams, which she “didn’t put 100 per cent into” because she was doing university interviews at the time, had an impact on her grades.

Coronavirus, A-levels

Gwen says she was ‘surprised’ at her A-level results last year


Gwen suddenly found herself carving out a new plan for the year after failing to qualify for any of her offers to study medicine at university.

“I hadn’t considered being rejected, so to have that was a worst nightmare come true,” she tells The Independent. “I couldn’t really process it. I just felt like I had no real control. Just like our fate had been decided.”

Gwen took a year out to reapply for medicine, retaking her chemistry A-level and picking up a new subject from scratch to “try and make the most of it”.

Her unplanned gap year was “hard at first”, with all of her friends moving away to university while she was stuck at home.

“At first, you feel kind of left behind, that that should be you,” the 19-year-old tells The Independent. “But I think after Covid having the impact it did on university students, in the end I am thankful for the way it worked out.”

She adds: “Taking a year out, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t the worst idea.”

‘For a few weeks, I just hated my life’

Coronavirus, A-levels

Lucas says he suddenly had to get into ‘exam mode’ as he prepared for re-sits


Lucas Coveney had been hoping for two As and a B in his A-levels last year, but ended up with all Bs.

His preferred university told him he could not defer his place, which he had wanted to do to earn money before starting university, as it had decided to accept him with lower grades than the entry requirements.

So Lucas took a year out, starting with revising for October re-sits. He suddenly had to get into “exam mode”, after brushing schoolwork aside for months after the original exams were cancelled.

“I literally stayed inside for six weeks – bearing in mind all my friends had started their work life or started university. I was kind of left behind,” the 19-year-old from Exeter says.

He adds: “Those few weeks around August, September – I just hated my life.”

He increased his grades and got a new offer from the University of Birmingham, and has been working while waiting to start in September.

Lucas says he is proud of how he handled the situation last year, saying he is happy he pushed himself to improve his grades instead of settling for less.

“Everything worked out well for me in the end,” the 19-year-old adds.

‘I got forced into my second gap year’

Coronavirus, A-levels

James says his two gap years were ‘the worst years’ of his life


James Llewellyn was due to re-sit his A-level exams last year, when they were cancelled for the first time due to the pandemic.

“I got forced into my second gap year, which was obviously awful,” the 20-year-old tells The Independent.

Private candidates faced issues with grades last year, with many – including James – unable to receive predicted grades from teachers due to not being linked to schools or colleges.

James says he was already finding it difficult on his gap year, with friends away at university, before finding out it was going to be extended by another year.

“They were definitely the worst years of my life,” James, from northwest London, says.

“You sit there for six, seven, eight hours a day in a room by yourself in silence and study. I was doing that for about two years.”

He has spent the time working at Waitrose, working extra-long hours last summer to save up to pay a private centre to issue his exam grades this year – which he hopes will be enough to qualify for his offer from the University of Nottingham.

‘I felt my world was over’

Priscilla Tamiam was still disappointed with her grades even after they went up following the government’s U-turn. She was still several grades off the ABB needed for her first-choice university offer.

“I’ve always been good at academic [subjects] my whole life. So I felt like a failure,” the student from London tells The Independent. “I felt my life was over, my world was over.”

The 19-year-old spent the next weeks “in limbo”, calling around universities before being accepted onto a course she liked. By this time, all university accommodation had gone and she had to find somewhere else to live.

Fast-forward a year, and Priscilla is about to go into her second year at Manchester Metropolitan University and is happy she ended up where she was.

“I took it as a lesson not to slack: to always put in effort in everything you do,” she tells The Independent.

‘I would wake up and revise for 10 hours’

Coronavirus, A-levels

Toby managed to have his grades pushed up in an appeal last year


Toby McDonald spent the weeks after results day revising, trying to push his grades up to qualify for medical school. His grades went up to ABC after the U-turn, which was still “a lot lower” than what he was expecting.

He decided to re-sit his exams, with his family spending hundreds of pounds on a private tutor to support him.

“My days were doing literally nothing but revising,” the 19-year-old from Canterbury says. “Wake up, revise for 10 hours, and then go to sleep basically.

“Revising the entire time hit my mental health really badly. I felt awful,” he tells The Independent. “It was a sense of, I suppose, self-worth crushed. I thought I had done awfully.”

Meanwhile, he was trying to get his school to put in an appeal to say they had submitted the wrong teacher predictions, which he says they were “reluctant” to do at first – but they eventually agreed.

His grades went up after the appeal and he was able to get a place at his second-choice university, Edinburgh, on the final day of clearing. Toby joined the course two weeks after everybody else.

“It was really painful at the time,” he says. But it still “turned out well in the end”.

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