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How are A level students feeling about their futures?

24 / 08 / 2020Rachael Milsom


With A level results hitting the headlines, Trendence’s latest research delves into how the pandemic has impacted students’ decisions around going to university and their future careers.

A level results day is always a big day for everyone involved – teachers, parents and universities, but especially the students whose futures may be shaped by the letters of the alphabet staring back at them when they open their envelopes. In 2020, with students’ grades taken out of their control by the coronavirus pandemic and placed in the hands of the government, we wanted to find out how students are feeling and what universities and employers can do to support them right now.

Trendence recently ran a survey of A level students on how they feel about their futures, collecting over 1,000 responses. Here’s what students thought about the change in assessment method, their career plans and their expectations of the new university experience.


Students were feeling less positive about their pending grades

The Trendence survey found that 60% of A level students felt they’d performed worse as a result of coronavirus and the change in assessment. 24% felt the assessment made no difference to being assessed face-to-face and just 16% felt they had performed better.

And these concerns haven’t gone away after results day, with coverage in the news largely featuring frustrated students who are worried that the grades they received will jeopardise their chances of going to university or getting an apprenticeship. These worries will hopefully be alleviated as it becomes clearer what the government’s grading U-turn means for students – some will have already accepted offers that were lower down their list; others will be worried that their university of choice will no longer have room for them this year.

There’s going to be a large number of students in need of advice and reassurance. Not getting the A level grades you wanted or not getting into your first-choice university isn’t usually the end of the world – as a lot of us know – but it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.


We need to ensure social mobility does not suffer

Low confidence in the changes to assessments due to Covid-19 was more prominent among the survey respondents from a lower socio-economic background. In fact, one in five students from a higher socio-economic background felt they’d performed better as a result of coronavirus, compared to just one in ten from a lower socio-economic background.

And, with 40% of students’ teacher-predicted grades downgraded during the standardisation process for A levels across England, analysis by the exams regulator Ofqual showed that grades of pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds fell by a larger margin than those of their better-off peers after moderation. Ofqual said these grades were more likely to go down as research showed that ‘teachers have a tendency to over-estimate to a greater extent the grades of socio-economically disadvantaged students’.

Since then, the government’s U-turn means students will be awarded the original grades estimated by their teachers, rather than their adjusted grades via the algorithm. However, there is a key lesson to remember here on the importance of social mobility and the work that needs to be done in the UK. For universities, employers and other organisations in the higher education space, that means thinking about what they can do individually – and in collaboration – to support and provide equal opportunities for disadvantaged students.


Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 has impacted plans for next year

Almost a quarter (23%) of the students who responded to the Trendence survey said they’ve changed their post-school plans as a result of coronavirus. Of those who’ve reconsidered, 27% were originally due to take a gap year, 44% to go to university and 21% to do an apprenticeship.

Some of the reasons given by students included:


  • ‘I won’t get the grades I need to get the university of my choice through predicted grades’
  • ‘The apprenticeships have been taken down and aren’t able to be applied for so I had to have something planned for September’
  • ‘It gives me chance to get over this year and just relax for a little while’
  • ‘I cannot travel at the moment so I would rather go straight to university and have a gap year after university when I can travel safely again’
  • ‘I don’t feel safe going to a major city university sharing with 6 to 8 people during these times. Additionally, I don’t feel online learning is worth the money’
  • ‘I don’t think online education would be suitable for me, therefore I’d rather wait a year until all universities open as usual’
  • ‘I don’t want to go through next year’s admissions cycle with all the current year 12s and everyone who deferred. I think getting a university space will be really competitive’

One of the biggest questions surrounding this year’s cohort of A level students has been whether they would want to defer their place at university as a result of Covid-19. 58% of the survey respondents had considered deferring; 29% were still considering it as of July and 28% had decided against it.

Meanwhile, one in three students said they are more likely to live closer to home for their post-school plans as a result of Covid-19.


Students want academic support, social opportunities and employer engagement

It’s safe to say would-be freshers have concerns about what their first year at university is going to look like. 80% of the survey respondents said they feel that their university experience will be compromised as a result of coronavirus. The majority feel this will be due to lack of face-to-face time with academics and other students, while a significant proportion (66%) believe it will be less value for money overall.

When asked what will be more important about their university experience as a result of the changes brought on by Covid-19, the respondents were largely in agreement. 76% said the ability to meet and engage with other students would be more important, 64% said academic support and feedback, and 62% said work experience and employer engagement to ensure their employment prospects aren’t compromised. Universities across the country will already be busy finalising how they’re going to meet these student priorities.

Of the small proportion of students (4%) who felt their university experience will improve, 54% said they enjoy the flexibility of studying remotely, 50% believed it would force universities to provide more online materials and 42% felt there would be fewer distractions, so they could focus more on their studies.


Students are switched on to how Covid-19 might affect their careers

Some students have reconsidered their careers in the long-term since the lockdown. While the majority of students (81%) said that they hadn’t changed their minds about their future careers, 19% had. When asked what/who had the most influence on their decision to change career plans, the majority of students (52%) said it was due to the financial uncertainty because of Covid-19, 49% said having more time to reflect and research employers and 35% said Covid-19 safety concerns. Parental/family pressures were only fourth on the list.

Of the students who have changed their minds about future careers, 50% said they are considering studying a different subject at university, 34% said they are focusing on a different sector that’s been less affected by Covid-19 (eg tech), 32% said they are considering different roles within organisations (ie those that are easier to carry out remotely), and 31% said their priorities for their first employer have changed, with job security being more important.

It’s clear that a significant number of young students want to be informed about how coronavirus is affecting the job market, which industries are thriving, surviving or struggling and where that leaves their career choices. The research also indicates that both job security and flexible working will be increasingly important considerations for this cohort of students.

If you have any questions about Trendence’s latest research, or if you would like more data from the survey, please email rachel.johnson@trendence.co.uk.

You can find out more about Trendence and its latest research at trendence.co.uk.