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For my A-Levels, I assumed the worst because I know how flawed the system is

When you’re black, working-class and from an immigrant family, do algorithm predictions mean the last two years of A-Levels were all for nothing?

14 Aug 2020

On 18 March, thousands of A-Level students across the country spent their last minutes at school either drenching a friend’s shoulder, writing heartfelt messages on shirts or like me, walking to the bus stop home in a solemn, confused daze. After zoning out during my headteacher’s two-minute speech, I sat at a window-seat, ruminating over all the essays I almost broke my wrist writing and panic attacks every Sunday evening, with one pandering question in mind: were the last two years of my life ultimately all for nought? 

Rewinding a week before to early March, Year 13s had already begun planning celebratory parties while the concept of national school closures only existed in our hopes and prayers. As far as we knew, our futures were now in the hands of a relentless global virus and a Tory government, so to be honest, who would blame us for wanting to mindlessly dance and drink our lives away? Eventually, everything from finding the motivation to put my black biro on paper, to walking from lesson to lesson was laced with the buzzing thought “school’s basically over anyways.” Although my familiarity with the word “basically” was one of many factors which made me underachieve in my mock exams, I was determined to end the cycle of regret I’d created, and begin forgiving myself for the outcome of circumstances which were out of my control. But unfortunately, this burst of positive energy and healing was short-lived, as the real severity of the virus finally slapped me in the face.

My 11 years of compulsory education had finally ended, but it was near impossible to get away from the death toll numbers – if the TV didn’t tell me, my News app or Twitter would certainly make sure they did. I was so focused on washing my hands every two hours and making sure my mother, who works in the healthcare department, was fully shielded as she heroically walked out of our home every morning, that my brain had suppressed the distant memory of A-Levels in my mind to prevent me from having a full-blown mental breakdown. While the government displayed their incompetence through the measly “lockdown” measures and believing clapping for the NHS was better than increasing their pay – the education sector played hide and seek with students, leaving us to succumb to our overactive minds until they finally felt like clearing things up.

“As a black creative, I was plagued with the fear of my talents and abilities being trumped by the limitations of my skin tone”

Ofqual’s decision to not just use predicted grades, but instead go through an unnecessarily extensive standardisation system was met with doubt and worry from all students. But as a black creative, I was plagued with the fear of my talents and abilities being trumped by the limitations of my skin tone and working-class, immigrant background. As pretentious as it sounds, I’d heard the infamous “you have to try 10 times harder as a black person” proverb from my mother countless times, but I never thought it would so overtly apply to me before I at least turned 20. No matter how well I could draw, paint, act, write an essay or analyse words, my academic value and talent can only get me so far – this realisation left me feeling exploited, angered, and (on behalf of my mother) scammed by the false attractiveness of UK schooling. I know it is not news that the country’s educational system is infested with racism, classism, and elitism, but having it directly explode on my future made things all the more poignant. 

As the months of waiting for my results distilled to the last couple of days, creating a beneficiary routine became the forefront of my priorities. Especially after the news of how Scottish students’ grades were being determined by their financial background (before this awful system was amended), spiralling back into negative thought traps and losing control of my emotions had become much more frequent. Sadly, many students tend to equate personal value with academic achievements, but this could not be further from the truth for me. Having dealt with trauma, anxiety and crippling depression throughout sixth form and seven of my 18 years, it was important for me to affirm that my grades would not be a reflection of me or my true abilities.

“No matter how well I could draw, paint, act, write an essay or analyse words, my academic value and talent can only get me so far”

Finally, 13 August. The media immediately began erupting with news of grades and the appealing process. Unsurprisingly, the UK’s bias against students from poor socio-economic backgrounds was made clear, as private school students in England were awarded twice as many A*s and As. To add fuel to the fire, any students who want to appeal or get their grades revised not only have to pay about £100 per subject but have to endure Ofqual’s version of emotional blackmail, by warning that an increase in a student’s grade could cause their friends and peers to be downgraded. I prepared myself for the worst. 

Despite the advances of technology and countless protests and demonstrations against them, discriminatory practices and beliefs still manifest themselves in our institutions. It is not far-fetched to say that the Department for Education dealt with 2020 A-Level grades in an appalling manner, and I can only hope that GCSE students and next year’s A-Level students aren’t dealt the same cards as we were. 

I opened the pdf file expecting the tears I’d mustered to turbulently gush out like water from a dam, only to be surprised by a decent string of letters on my screen. Of course, in my self-doubting, perfectionist nature, I was slightly disappointed by my result in my favourite subject, but knowing that my grades are more than enough to get me firm places in any of the four universities I applied to, I am grateful and satisfied. It felt like I’d picked the blue pill and could finally advance to the next stage of my life. Thankfully, I got an answer to the question I asked myself almost five months ago on the bus home: it really was all worth something in the end.