Ever since the coronavirus started wreaking havoc on our lives, we've held on to the other side of the coin: getting back to normal. When will we, how can we and... what? Another lockdown?

Some students might have felt gleeful at not having to go to school when the pandemic first took root but, as it dragged on, staying home got less fun. And for those preparing to transition to the next stage of their academic career, the situation became dire.

Unfortunately, viruses do not respect human doings or time constraints.

Last year, just as things were getting worrisome, we were entering exam season. The unprecedented (and unforeseen) pandemic made exam-taking - and worse, assigning results to said exams a disaster. And then, in a true instance of the domino effect, applying to university was made the very opposite of organised and streamlined.

Considering what happened last year, if you're meant to apply for your undergraduate study programme this season, it's understandable that you would have questions.

Have all of the obstacles been removed from the application process? Has the exam grading system been worked out? Will you get your assessment results back before the UCAS application deadline? What happens if you don't?

What if you do get your grades in time but find that you have grounds for an appeal: will you have time to do so before the application deadline?

Let Superprof shed some light on those questions. If you have others, you can pose them in the comments section at the end of this article.

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Laying Out the Grading Process

If you are of the same mind as your fellow students, you've probably spent a lot of time wondering what's happening with GCSEs and A-Levels this year. If you're like most Scottish students of an age to sit exams, You might have wondered how Highers will take place.

And, if there is a process for exams, how will they be graded?

This year, teachers will wield red pens far more often
Teachers are the first line graders in this year's assessments. Photo credit: mikefisher821 on Visualhunt

As mentioned in this article's introduction, last year's exam and assessment processes were an unmitigated disaster.

At first, everyone thought it would be safe enough to send students to testing centres, but that was before anyone knew just how devastating this disease would turn out to be. And then, the prevailing thought was that it might be okay to pare down the exams; instead of students writing two or more papers per subject, one would suffice.

That way, students would spend less time in close proximity to each other. 

The suggestion free-for-all continued: test only core subjects formally and accept teacher assessments for elective subjects. But then, who would oversee the teachers' markings?

Out of last year's mess emerged an overwhelming movement to trust teachers. That's rather strange, seeing as teachers are trusted to lead tomorrow's movers and shakers... but we can't trust them to mark papers?

There's actually a bit more to that issue, including how schools are assessed and rated, and how much funding they receive. We wrote all about those variables and how they came to prominence in our companion article.

Unfortunately, knowing the whys and wherefores of anything doesn't necessarily help with their practical application, so let's get back to our topic.

What's Different in UCAS in 2021

Our ever more tech-driven world leaves long-term, institutional systems vulnerable to failure or worse: outright attack. Who remembers the malware attack that took down the entire NHS network a few years back?

When people think 'system vulnerability', it's most often in terms of malicious hackers and other bad actors.

We tend to overlook our own dependence on those systems that are vulnerable to attack. As COVID has so dramatically proven, a computer virus doesn't have to be the only reason our systems fail. For that matter, thinking of 'system' only as the technology that supports our institutions is equally limiting.

Our lack of contingency planning makes us just as vulnerable to unforeseen events as a computer virus does, if not more so.

Of course, that's just a statement apropos of the subject of unforeseen events in general; not a direct criticism of how things were managed last year. In the early days of the pandemic, nobody could have anticipated that the crisis would last this long or be this destabilizing.

Military personnel are experts in contingency planning
Military personnel are uniquely adaptable; they are experts in contingency planning. Photo credit: The U.S. Army on Visualhunt.com

In that light, we can say that our institutions handled things rather well, all things considered, and they're getting better all the time.

Now, we have a whole year of pandemic-driven decision-making under our belts. All of the institutions we rely on to shape modern life have adjusted to the new reality but A-level and Higher students are mainly concerned with just one of them: UCAS.

Note that, if you're a GCSE or Higher candidate this year, this year's changes to the Universities and Colleges Admission Services may continue throughout next year, too, so this section is relevant for you as well.

Let's look at what's new and/or different with UCAS and what has remained the same.

  • If you anticipated sitting A-Levels/Advanced Highers this year, you likely already know that undergraduate enrolment started last year in September. The normal deadline of January 15th was extended this year, to January 29th.
    • Despite that change, you would still enter your anticipated grades the same way as has been done in the past, whether they are centre assessed grades - CAGs or calculated grades (in England, Northern Ireland and Wales).
  • Predicting your grades is more of a challenge this year, considering all of the disruptions to learning we've had to endure. It will be especially hard to predict practical learning grades so UCAS has made the process much easier by expanding and/or adapting their criteria to suit the times.
  • Providing references: the profound disruption we've experienced over the past year makes it more difficult to obtain references. UCAS has broadened their acceptable reference criteria to include how COVID impacted your school or college, or how it has impacted you personally. In essence, this year's references amount to a second personal statement, whose topic is COVID rather than why you're the right candidate for a particular degree programme.
  • Exhibitions will be virtual this year. Everything that you might expect from a university campus visit, you will experience virtually.
  • Offers: universities will continue to make offers and all current offers stand. If you've accepted one, you don't need to worry about it being revoked. However, no offer will be made unconditionally, meaning you shouldn't feel pressured to accept any offers as you fret over the grades you've yet to receive.
  • UCAS Clearing starts around the usual time; this year it will be on July 5th.

Of course, if you're not satisfied with the way your grades have been calculated, you have the right to appeal. However, doing so may leave only UCAS Clearing as your avenue for course selection.

As you well know, UCAS, like time, waits for no student. Please pardon the paraphrase. 

Besides, who could have foreseen that a pandemic would be the reason why exams were cancelled this year? COVID forced change upon us in more ways than one...

It used to be easy to grade students' performance
Long gone are the days of simple student assessment; these days, teachers have to work much harder to grade pupils. Photo credit: rulenumberone2 on VisualHunt.com

A Word on Appealing Grades

After last year's grading fiasco, it became clear that a rethink was in order. Why task teachers with grading if those grades were going to be reprocessed anyway? Was our system of basing school financing and teachers' pay the reason for reprocessing them through an algorithm?

How well did those algorithmically reprocessed results reflect last year's actual learning conditions and student performance? Have they ever been a fair representation?

Older students -  and, certainly, their parents most likely remember the furore and confusion of a few years ago, when the grading system was changed from letter marks to the numbers 1-9.

The expanded range of possible grades was meant to reflect the increasing variety of topics students were tested on in any given subject. In theory, it made a lot of sense - as knowledge banks grow, school curricula include more information, which means that students are exposed to more ideas.

Students' ability to use that knowledge must be tested and the topics are no longer so broad that they can be assessed under just a handful of grade divisions.

In practice, though, it led to a lot of grade disputes. Where a student might have rightfully anticipated an A, the top mark under the old system, their work was rated only at 7 or 8 under the new grades breakdown. Very few students earned 9s; that added to the outrage.

The appeals filed in the aftermath of that grading systems change were tame considering what happened after last year's grading fiasco.

All dramatic dispute instances aside, you have a right to appeal your grades and you should, particularly if your results will impact your access to the university course of your choice.

For that reason, Ofqual has worked hard to engineer a system that will see grades in students' hands at least two weeks earlier than the standard timetable for this round of exams. That way, if you do need to dispute any of your grades, you'll have a bit more time to do so.

However, you should specify that you're under the UCAS deadline so that your case will be prioritized, (hopefully) allowing you to beat the clock.

Your turn to chime in: are you satisfied with the way GCSE and A-Level grades will be calculated this year?

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.