Written by Andy Gardner, August 2018
16 August 2018 will be my 31st continuous year of providing Careers Advice on A Level Results day. Things have changed in many ways. In August 1988 I was given the responsibility of providing the AFEIS (Advanced Further Education Information Service) Service for all the schools connected to Stratford Careers Office, part of the London Borough of Newham Careers Service. The weirdly named AFEIS just meant the A Level Results service. This was “pre” a lot of things:
• Pre-mass higher-education
• Pre-ridiculous student finance system
It was my job to be based at Stratford Careers Office and see whoever came in. It wasn’t big numbers, but I did see the Director of Educations daughter and a future England Women’s Football team Manager. We were sent university and polytechnic course vacancies on a list through the post, which most importantly had the relevant contact and phone number. It all seems so low tech looking back. Another thing that seemed different were levels of anxiety, they were lower. If people couldn’t get what they wanted with their grades, they would just take another year at a local Further Education College to get the grades they needed. Every FE College offered this 1 year programme like they almost expected loads of people to do badly.
By 1990 I was with the London Borough of Camden Careers Service at their office in Camden Town. There were some of these new-fangled computers, and the AFEIS service had now linked up with something called Ecctis (I have no idea what this stood for) where on A Level results day you were sent a floppy disk with details of uni and poly vacancies and could bring them up on a screen and even print them off! It seemed a bit busier on results day and again I looked after all the schools. Looking back what strikes me is how low some of the conditional offers were. I remember having a conversation with one of my own sixth formers who was holding a conditional offer with a London medical school for CCC and she got CCD. I advised her to contact the Medical School immediately as I felt she still had a small chance. She was rejected, I did say it was only a small chance!
I was contacted by the BBC to appear on their first ever dedicated A Level results special, Student Choice 1992. It seemed that A Level results were no longer a niche activity and were worthy of a BBC special! The numbers getting results seemed to be increasing, going to university seemed to be a more mainstream activity. In fact, as the years went by things started getting really busy and we would open on the Saturday after A Level results. One year we helped over 350 A Level/BTEC students just in our little office. Again we were still pretty much pre-internet, the internet didn’t kick-off in an mass way till around 98-99.
We were still in the period when people did Linear A Levels and it was really common for a young person to say “my teacher said I was predicted ABB and I got DDE! I don’t understand!”. What’s the betting we get more of this with the move back to Linear A Levels.
By the Year 2000 I had left the Careers Service (now called Connexions) and was working in the Sixth Forms of the two schools I had been working with in the Careers Service. We were now moving to AS and A2 Levels and it felt like the Sixth Form/University transition was becoming the main game in town. With the introduction of AS Levels and the increased certainty that they brought to the process, A level results day felt like a cog in an industrial process. Bigger numbers in sixth form, and results day could be exhausting just through the sheer numbers of young people that needed advice. There seemed to be a real rise in anxiety on results day, and throughout the whole UCAS process, as institutions seemed to be gamed to pump as many people as possible to university as part of the Aimhigher years. Not getting the grades equated to missing out on a fantastic life changing experience, a fantastic career, or so it seemed at the time.
I have to hold my hands up here, as the author of the Higher Education Advisers Handbook: Practical Steps for One-to-one Guidance (catchy title eh?), did I help turn the whole university thing into an almost cult-like obsession?
Then came the rise in fees with people desperate to get the grades so they could go with the 3k yearly fees rather than the 9k fees. It seemed like we had the most selective university system in the world that year. What I find notable about the 9k years is that every year A Level results seems to become a little bit less of an event. We are not back to where I was in 1988 in Stratford Careers Office. But conversations on A Level results day seem much more based on a buyers-market, with massively increased choices including apprenticeships and foreign universities. It’s now the Apprenticeships that are more difficult to get into in many instances.
Many areas no longer have a local Careers Office, with everything now based around school and college autonomy, so the quality and existence of advice really is a lottery (of course there are always helplines).
The one thing that hasn’t changed over 31 years, is that the most important thing is to listen to the young person – even though we are in the noise and stress of A Level results. What is it that the young person really wants to do? Can they still do it? What are some other options? How do we find a way forward? In this respect, 31 years later, nothing has changed.