‘Grade chasing’ concerns on exam results day

Aced it: Last year women were 35% more likely to go to university than men. © PA

Today, 18-year-olds in much of Britain will get their A-level results. Many will use them as a springboard to a bright future — but how important are young people’s academic qualifications?

A sleepless night. Walking nervously to school. Opening the envelope. Then joy, relief – and sadness.

Today brings a rite of passage for the 18-year-olds of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is A-level results day, when tens of thousands find out how they have done in the most important exams of their school careers.

More young people than ever before now use their results to go to university: by midnight on results day last year, almost 410,000 young people had confirmed places. The university participation rate is now nearly 50%, and the least advantaged young people in England are 65% more likely to go to university or college than in 2006.

These trends would please Tony Blair. As prime minister in 1999, he set a target to get half of young people into higher education, declaring: ‘In today’s world, there is no such thing as too clever’. But some now worry that top grades have been devalued and young people are gaining qualifications for the sake of it, not as a means to an end.

And is university a worthwhile investment? Rising student numbers have been accompanied by surging tuition fees. Graduates in England now owe £44,000 on average when they finish their course; a quarter of UK graduates are low earners a decade later; and a study this week suggested more than a third of graduates regret their degrees.

‘It might be a good time to stop telling youngsters that higher education and the debt that comes with it are the only way for them to get on,’ author and former teacher Dreda Say Mitchell wrote in The Guardian on Monday.

The UK has similar participation rates to most of its European neighbours and the USA. But many of the world’s recent school leavers have very different experiences. In Israel, every 18-year-old undertakes a period of military service. And nearly 60% of German school leavers engage in apprenticeships – a system which British policymakers have now taken steps towards emulating.

So how important are traditional academic qualifications?

Fully examined

They are over-rated, say some. Exams cannot measure some of the key skills employers want to see in young people, such as the ability to take responsibility, show initiative and interact with people. Being good at tests proves little, and plenty of people have led successful and happy lives after struggling academically.

Nonsense, retort others – they are the truest benchmark of achievement. Exams show how well students can collect, analyse and present relevant information; they require discipline and teach us about our personal strengths and interests. And gaining a university place creates exciting opportunities: to taste independence, meet people and discover new ideas.

You Decide

  1. Do you see exam results as the most important outcome of your school career?
  2. Are traditional academic qualifications the best benchmark of success in life?


  1. Think of a job you would like to do when you are older. Write an advert for that job, outlining the skills an applicant would need. Then discuss in pairs: how far would exam results help your application?
  2. In groups of three, perform a role play. One of you has applied for a job that interests you; the others are the interviewers. What skills or experience would you need to make a good candidate?

Some People Say...

“Life is little more than a series of exam questions.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What is the relevance of this debate to me, just one person working within the system?
Whatever decisions you make about your future, it is worth considering what you do and do not get from formal education and exams. You may have good qualifications, but do you need to boost your attractiveness to an employer by acquiring new skills? You could perhaps start your own company one day — what experience will you need to make a success of it?
So should I go to university or not?
University is great for many people and provides many opportunities. It is a good way of developing your academic skills and meeting new people. Many professional jobs will expect you to have a degree. But higher education is not for everybody, and you may be able to get the skills and experience you need elsewhere.

Word Watch

An increase of around 13,000 from 2014.
The Department for Education estimates that 47% of young people in the UK went to university in 2013-14.
According to UCAS.
Around 98% of A-level entries now pass. Nearly 26% gained A or A* grades last year; just 8.9% got As in 1982. In 2015, 22% of graduates gained first-class honours, double the 2014 figure.
These vary across the UK, but most English and Welsh universities charge £9,000 per year. When fees were introduced in 1998, everyone paid £1,175.
According to the Sutton Trust. This is more than graduates in Australia, the USA, Canada or New Zealand.
Low earners
Earning around £20,000 per year or less. The average UK salary is £26,500.
By insurance company Aviva.
Three years for men and two years for women.
Professional training run by employers.
More than 870,0000 people took part in apprenticeships in 2014-15. That figure has doubled in a decade. This week a report suggested that apprentices in some fields could earn 270% more than their graduate counterparts.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.