Omiyma El-Ahmad from Burlington Danes Academy standing in her school hall holding a brown envelope containing her A-level results

Resilient H&F students tackle A-level exam fiasco

Update on 18 August: A-level and GCSE switch gives greater certainty to students, and puts trust in teachers

Students from across Hammersmith & Fulham have been praised for their resilience and determination after receiving mixed news on an A-level results day like none before.

This year, events have been overshadowed by the dreadful consequences of COVID-19 and woefully last-minute changes in light of a results grading system that saw many students left with downgraded results.

Many students achieved brilliant results, bringing very welcome good news to schools, colleges and families up and down the borough, but there were too many students who were left disappointed, confused and worried about their downgraded results.

Kayleigh Corbin stood outside her school on A-level results day
Kayleigh Corbin from Hammersmith Academy

“We’ve nothing but praise and admiration for how our borough’s students have handled themselves during the pandemic,” said Cllr Larry Culhane, H&F Cabinet Member for Children and Education.

“It has been a time of uncertainty and anxiety which they’ve handled with resilience and resolve, all while having to deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are a credit to our borough.

“But they’ve been let down by the government, who have squandered the past four months, leaving it until the last minute to try and address the predictable and unfair consequences of the results grading system they put in place to counter cancelled public exams.

“Their belated intervention, which hasn’t even resolved the problem, took everybody in the education sector by surprise, particularly universities, who the government are now urging to be flexible with their admissions merely weeks after imposing caps on the number of students they could make offers to.

“The government’s continued inaction has led to disappointment and heartache for too many H&F students, with their dreams of a place at their chosen university in tatters through no fault of their own.

“We are truly grateful to all our schools and colleges, who after playing a crucial role in keeping key workers on the frontline during the pandemic, are doing everything they can to help affected students rescue those dreams in the most shambolic of circumstances.”

Staff ready to help

On Thursday morning the traditional scenes of groups of happy students embracing and jumping in the air were replaced by a more subdued mood.

With social distancing measures in place, and contact discouraged, some students opted to receive results via email rather than turn up for the usual envelope opening.

Zarlasht Ashoorzada stood waiting for her 2020 A-level results
Zarlasht Ashoorzada from Hammersmith Academy

To further complicate matters, the UCAS website crashed in the morning, leaving thousands unable to discover if they had the grades they needed for university.

Schools remained open, however, with staff ready to advise students who turned up in person to discuss grades and the mechanism for appeals or autumn resits (which schools have to prepare students for in a matter of weeks).

Late changes

Headteachers expressed frustration about eleventh-hour changes to the results system, with nearly 40 per cent of results being downgraded from teachers’ professional assessments following moderation.

“I’m so proud of our students. They’ve achieved some excellent results and are going to be going on to some brilliant universities,” said Gary Kynaston, Headteacher at Hammersmith Academy.

“It’s been a really challenging time, for information, media attention, and misinformation. So, students have really been showing some great resilience and determination despite some of the chaos from the late government changes that have been created.”

Success despite the struggles

There were success stories amid the disappointments. At William Morris Sixth Form in St Dunstan’s Road, Fulham, 20-year-old Milad Abdelhay will be heading off to study law at King’s College in September, after achieving A* grades in politics and sociology and an A in history.

At the other end of the borough in White City, Ali Ali, a student at Ark Burlington Danes Academy is celebrating a place studying engineering at Oxford University, after impressively securing A* grades in maths, further maths and physics.

And back at Hammersmith Academy, Kayleigh Corbin is headed to Leeds University to study English literature and theatre, after earning A*, A and B grades.

Read more about how schools in H&F fared on A-level results day 2020

  • Burlington Danes Academy

    In White City, several students from Ark Burlington Danes Academy secured highly sought-after university spaces at some of the country’s most reputable colleges, despite a year filled with upheaval.

    Ali Ali from Burlington Danes Academy standing in the school hall with a brown envelope containing his results
    Ali Ali is heading to Jesus College at Oxford University

    Ali Ali is heading to Jesus College at Oxford University to study engineering after securing A* grades in maths, further maths and physics.

    Ali had competed in annual UK Mathematics Trust competitions, winning several awards since joining the school in Year 12.

    "The school has been amazing - I don’t think I could've done it without my teachers,” he said.

    Sadek Al Saabari is set up to take a place studying medicine at Queen Mary, University of London after receiving As in biology, chemistry and maths.

    Having moved to London from the Netherlands at a young age, Sadek supplemented his studies with a  range of volunteering placements, including in pharmacies, a care home, and in a hospital in Iraq, where his parents are originally from.

    “I'm so proud of what I've achieved and the help I've received from my school,” he said.

    Sadek Al Saabari standing in the school hall holding a brown envelope containing his results
    Sadek Al Saabari is set up to take a place studying medicine

    Omiyma El-Ahmadi from Ladbroke Grove finished her L3 BTEC in business and achieved D*, D*, D and hopes to go to City, University of London, to study law.

    Omiyma supplemented her studies with numerous workshops with international companies since returning to Ark Burlington Danes for sixth form. She also mentored younger students through her volunteer work as a reading buddy. 

    “I am delighted to celebrate the achievements of our students on our A level results day,” said Paul Bhatia, Principal of Ark Burlington Danes Academy.

    “Our children have worked incredibly hard over the course of the year and while this has been an unusual year, I am overjoyed to see one in three of them secure places at the most competitive institutions in the country, including Oxford, Imperial, LSE, UCL, Durham and Bristol.

    “It’s been wonderful to see our children grow in their time at BDA, from Year 7 into bright young adults, and we wish them the very best for the next stage of their educational journey.”

  • Hammersmith Academy

    At Hammersmith Academy, headteacher, Gary Kynaston, reflected on how his students performed in unprecedented circumstances.

    As the young students received A-Level, AS Level and BTEC results after being awarded grades without sitting summer examinations, for the first time ever.

    “This year’s cohort of A-Level students has witnessed the biggest challenge to education in over 70 years,” said Mr Kynaston.

    “Not only have they had their learning disrupted but students will have lost a sense of a rite of passage of sitting their final exams and celebrating the success of two years of hard work.”

    Nedal Harris stood outside his school awaiting his A-level results
    Nedal Harris was the school’s top achiever who secured A*, A*, AA

    Among the Academy’s success stories, was Nedal Harris – the school’s top achiever who secured A*, A*, AA, and goes on to study architecture at Westminster.

    “It was disappointing we couldn’t sit our exams, it would have been more of an achievement to get the results that way,” said Nedal, who is excited to begin his university experience.

    “The teachers have been amazing and really helped me put together a portfolio for my applications. I’m happy with the grades I have achieved, they were the grades I was expecting.”

    Zarlasht Ashoorzada is heading off to study dentistry at Queen Mary after getting an A* and AB.

    “I was upset about the exams being cancelled and not being able to show off the hard work that I put in over the two years,” she said.

    “No one knew this was going to happen, and the Academy has done all it can to support us through it and to make sure we were not disadvantaged.

    “I want to thank the Sixth Form Team for helping me with my application and the support throughout, it has made such a difference.”

    Mohamed Mohamed secured A*, AAA, will study physics at UCL, having just missed out on direct entry to his first choice of Imperial.

    Mohamed Mohamed outside his school preparing to hear how he's done in his A-levels
    Mohamed Mohamed will study physics at UCL

    “I have just missed out on my first choice and I feel that had I sat the exam, the A would have been an A* grade as that is what I have been achieving in my mocks,” he said.

    “I know that no system can be absolutely fair to everyone, but I think there has not been enough focus on actual ability in the process which has disadvantaged me.

    “I will have to wait for Imperial to decide whether they will make a concession or whether I am able to appeal.

    “The Academy has been brilliant in explaining the process throughout the lockdown period and have been supporting me today as I work my way through. I am still excited about starting uni and I need to look at the positives.”

    Kayleigh Corbin achieved A*, AB and will go to Leeds to study English literature and theatre.

    “I think I could have achieved higher grades if I sat the exams, but the priority was to get into university,” she said.

    “The Academy has been really supportive, emailing us and tweeting important information when school has been closed.

    “I’m looking forward to university, it is normally a nervous time but it will be more challenging now, especially having to move away from home.”

    Hamza El-Bakkali secured an apprenticeship with IBM which starts in October.

    Hamza El-Bakkali outside his school on A-level results day 2020
    Hamza El-Bakkali secured an apprenticeship with IBM which starts in October

     “I applied for the apprenticeship before the lockdown and had just passed the assessment before school ended in March,” he said.

    “It was stressful as IBM did not know whether they would be able to run the scheme and it was very daunting as I had two university offers which I was going to turn down. I was so relieved to hear from IBM this week and that I had been successful and the scheme is going ahead.”

    Summarising the grading situation, Mr Kynaston added: “Questions remain as to what the Academy’s final examination statistics will be given the government’s last-minute addition of a ‘triple lock’ guarantee.

    “This ensures students receive the highest possible score between either an awarded grade, a grade on appeal or a grade from an autumn exam - this will be clearer in the coming weeks.

    “Irrespective of the challenges, it is most pleasing to see so many of our students achieving the university places they have set their sights on, including the top Russell Group universities.

    “This is very much in keeping with the high standard and reputation of our Sixth Form and the upward trajectory of exam results year on year. Students can now focus on starting the next chapter in their education and look forward to their future careers.

    “I thank all the staff, in particular the Sixth Form Team, who have devoted their energy to supporting and guiding our young people through uncertain times, and to the parents who have worked so closely with us to ensure students have not been disadvantaged by COVID-19 disruptions.”

  • London Oratory

    London Oratory headmaster Dan Wright has hailed his sixth-formers for producing a vintage harvest of results.

    Despite 47 per cent of A-level passes being downgraded, the students still did the West Brompton school proud, with 69 per cent of pupils securing A*-B grades (only slightly down on 78 per cent last year).

    “Pass rates remain at 99.99 per cent recurring,” said the head, wondering aloud how high the different grade figures might have been had pupils been able to sit examinations.

    Mr Wright is concerned that the “Orwellian statistical algorithm” applied to this year’s crop of results failed to recognise the school’s improving three-year rolling average of grades.

    Yet despite everything, 39 per cent of Oratory pupils attained A*-A grades. 

    “With all courses fully delivered by the time national lockdown was sprung upon us, pupils must rest assured that they have acquitted themselves with real credit on demanding, hard-currency courses,” he said, urging this year’s leavers to build on the solid foundation supplied by the school in Seagrave Road.

    He pledged to continue the fight for fair grades on behalf of his students and praised the teaching staff at the Catholic school for the meticulous way they dealt with the extraordinary pattern of events in 2020.

    As with other schools, Oratory submitted its centre-assessed grades to the exam boards in June based on teachers’ professional judgement, mock results and marked coursework.

    Dan Wright describes this summer’s leavers as “a crackingly able year group” who “deserve the very best of outcomes”.

    To compensate for the fact that many missed the usual exam results morning rendezvous at the school, he has invited sixth-formers back to an event in early September.

  • Sacred Heart High School

    There’s a serene calm at Sacred Heart High School, despite wider concerns about A-level result downgrading.

    The Catholic secondary school in Hammersmith Road has reported “huge success” among its sixth-formers, and an overall mood that remains upbeat and positive.

    Headteacher Marian Doyle, celebrating her sixth anniversary at the helm, said: “There have been many notable achievements among students of all abilities, and the vast majority have secured university placements of their choice and are excited about their future.”

    The school, founded by nuns in a former convent and attended by former prime minister Tony Blair’s daughter, Kathryn, only reinstated its sixth form in 2013.

    But it has consistently achieved good results, enjoying its status as one of the UK’s oldest religious girls’ schools for 11-18s.

    While this year’s final moderated results are still awaited, they are anticipated to be close to 2019’s achievement of 58 per cent A* to B grades, and 77 per cent A* to C. Last year the school also did well in its BTEC business studies, with 33 per cent of students gaining double distinctions.

    “The hard work and integrity of teaching staff who worked so hard to ensure accurate and fair assessment of students’ work are a credit to our school and the teaching profession,” added the headteacher.

    Although the school, which has nearly 800 pupils, mourned the fact that, as a result of COVID-19, not all of its sixth-formers were able to attend on Thursday to say goodbye to staff or fellow pupils, there were words of reassurance for leavers.

    On its Twitter feed, addressing these troubled times, there was a message for Sacred Heart’s Year13s, in the comforting quote from Julian of Norwich in the 14th century: “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well.”

    Marian Doyle explained: “Amid all of the debate and media coverage surrounding the A-level results, at Sacred Heart High School we are delighted to be able to celebrate the huge success of our students.

    “As we welcomed the students this morning they were upbeat and positive, a huge testimony to their resilience during this challenging time.”

    In past years Ms Doyle has hailed the “high aspirations, commitment, dedication and hard work” of teachers and pupils, and support of parents, for the school’s exam results.

  • West London Free School

    West London Free School has doubled the number of Oxbridge places gained by its A-level students.

    Last year three students at the school in King Street, Hammersmith, secured places at Oxford or Cambridge, while this year six have received offers… with a seventh pending.

    Headteacher Clare Wagner calculates that the school’s A*-C grades at A-level were broadly similar to last year, but was unable to give firm figures as the final picture remains uncertain.

    She is concerned that 90 out of 100 of the school’s sixth-form students had their expected grades reduced, and promised to help them achieve fairer outcomes. “They haven’t got the grades they deserve, so it’s really upsetting,” she said. “We’re disappointed with the markdown. Out of 100 students, 90 had one or more of their grades downgraded… and we were very conservative when we submitted their grades.

    “The grades we have now are not going to be the grades we’ll have in a few weeks because we’re going to appeal,” she pledged. Appeals have to be lodged by 4 September.

    While some students have got into the universities and colleges they had set their heart on, others are still in limbo after being given grades lower than their mocks, predictions or school assessments.

    “It’s not fair to celebrate a few kids’ successes when so many have been downgraded,” she said.

    All students were emailed grades by West London Free School at 8am on exam morning as, with COVID-19 restrictions limiting those who turned up to ones needing clearing advice in person from teachers.

    “They haven’t been able to do the crying and the jumping up and down waving their papers,” said the head. “They’re doing that at home.”

  • William Morris Sixth Form

    After being awarded A* grades in politics and sociology, and an A in history, William Morris Sixth Form student Milad Abdelhay will be studying law at King’s College in September.

    It’s a great achievement by the student, who has now turned 20, as he aims to work towards a career in commercial law, including business legislation and acquisitions and mergers.

    “The grades I got were the ones that were predicted, so that’s what I’d have achieved anyway,” said Milad, who had special praise for the head of humanities at the sixth form in St Dunstan’s Road, Hammersmith, Claire Johnston.

    “A lot of teachers went the extra mile for me; if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have achieved as highly,” he said. “Particularly I’d highlight Claire Johnston in the history department. She helped me a lot when I needed help in any of the subjects.”

    Overall, he enjoyed his time at William Morris, adding: “As much as A-levels can be enjoyable!”

    It’s been quite a week for the William Morris Sixth Form’s new principal Mary Berrisford… she only started work on Monday!

    “It’s been absolutely hectic,” admitted the former head of sixth form at City & Islington, who was pitched straight into the A-level grade battle.

    “There have been a lot of queries about the system, and we’ve definitely been hit by the moderation process,” she said, adding that she’s currently trying to focus on the positives as she settles into her new role at the 25-year-old sixth form college.

    “[Downgrading] does seem to have affected sixth form colleges and areas of social deprivation the hardest, and that’s a real worry,” she said. “We’re not currently releasing our grades, because they will probably change. We might be slightly down, but it’s likely to change.”

    Conversations with students were mainly conducted by phone or Zoom, with the new principal joining others in the school’s leadership team, offering support and advice. “Because of social distancing, we don’t have the usual happy photographs this year,” she said.

    “What’s been disappointing is that on some individual subjects there has been blanket downgrading. We know our marking was fair because we standardised it using three-year trends.”

    Another William Morris student who is planning to study law after getting her grades on Thursday is Crystal Cooke, 18 next week, who got A in politics, B in history and C in English Language and Literature… that C grade really disappointing her when she’d expected a B.

    She’ll appeal against the grade, but a phone call to Warwick within minutes of getting her results confirmed, to her relief, that despite the uni’s initial ‘ABB’ demand, she had been accepted. She will start on 28 September.

    Having visited the Old Bailey to watch a real court in session, Crystal has set her mind on becoming a crown prosecutor.

    “I want to do criminal law,” she said. “When I went to the Old Bailey, we watched a trial, and when I saw how the crown prosecutor was working, it really made me want to be one.”

    Although her grades proved acceptable to Warwick, Crystal is conscious that some of her friends at William Morris were disappointed by the outcome of the results process.

    “Personally, I’m OK, but some of my friends were unhappy with their grades, and confused about the way they’d got them. I’m sure they’ll appeal. I’m also going to appeal because it would be better to have a B on my record for English, rather than a C.”

Continued support

Nationally, approximately 40 per cent of teacher-assessed grades have been downgraded by the government’s standardisation process. This equates to roughly 28,000 downgraded examination entries.

It currently remains unclear exactly how many Hammersmith & Fulham students have been negatively affected today by the process, but if what happened at the West London Free School reflects the whole borough, it has significant negative impact.

“Out of 100 students, 90 had one or more of their grades downgraded - and we were very conservative when we submitted their grades,” said Clare Wagner, disappointed headteacher of the school based in King Street, Hammersmith.

“They haven’t got the grades they deserve, so it’s really upsetting and we will be appealing.”

Despite the disappointing outcomes, the borough’s schools remain resolutely committed to supporting each and every one as much as they can.

Not sure what to do next?

We want to make sure all students in H&F can get the help they need.

If you are a student who believes you’ve not been awarded the ‘right grades’, you should check whether or not your chosen university, apprenticeship, or employer will still take you (bearing in mind that universities have been asked to hold places open until students have received finalised grades).

If you are a student with lower grades than expected, you’re advised to ask your school for the CAG (Centre Assessed Grades) which will alert you to any obvious discrepancies. Further guidance about the appeals process is due to be published.

It is also worth applying through the UCAS clearing system. Last year 70,000 students received a place on a university course that matched their requirements and due to the pandemic there are likely to be even more places available.

If none of these steps help get the grades you need, there’s also the option of sitting examination papers in your chosen subjects this autumn.

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