Friday briefing: Why this year’s A-level cohort might be the ‘unluckiest of all’

·13 min read
<span>Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Alamy

Good morning, and if you’ve screwed up your A-levels, consider this: my results seemed fine and now I’m nearly 40 and getting up at five in the morning to send an email for a living. (This is called the reverse Clarkson.)

If that sort of consolation message is as familiar as a picture of teenage girls jumping in the air, this year’s results day did have more unusual – and significant – features.

The cohort of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who got their grades yesterday are the only group to have had their entire sixth form period disrupted by coronavirus; they are also the first whose results will be based on examination since before the pandemic. 43,000 of them were left without a university place last night, the highest number in a decade. What happens next will be one crucial measure of how our education system has emerged from the disruption of lockdown, and how long it will take to make up what was lost.

For today’s newsletter, I’ve spoken to Lee Elliot Major, the UK’s first professor of social mobility, at Exeter University, and former chief executive of education charity the Sutton Trust, about what he sees in the results – and what, beyond patronising tweets, we owe the young people who got them. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Executive pay | The annual bonuses paid to water company executives rose by 20% in 2021, despite most of the firms failing to meet sewage pollution targets. Executives received an average of £100,000 on top of their salaries during a period in which foul water was pumped for 2.7m hours into England’s rivers and swimming spots.

  2. Salman Rushdie | Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan has condemned the attack on Salman Rushdie in an interview with the Guardian. Khan said that while anger at Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was understandable, it could not justify the assault.

  3. Crime | A 44-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of 87-year-old Thomas O’Halloran on a mobility scooter in west London. The suspect was arrested in the early hours of Thursday.

  4. Cost of living | Labour has called on Boris Johnson to recall parliament next week so the government can offer more help to struggling households before the announcement of the new energy price cap. Ofgem is due to announce the rise in seven days.

  5. Finland | A leaked video of the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, dancing exuberantly has sparked controversy in Helsinki. Finnish media alleged that a voice in the background could be heard making a reference to cocaine, a claim denied by Marin.

In depth: ‘We have to have a conversation about how we support these young people’

“It’s going to take us years to understand which cohort has been most affected by the pandemic,” says Lee Elliot Major. “But I do think this particular cohort might be the unluckiest of all.”

Elliot Major runs through a litany so bleak that it almost makes you grateful to be old: “The kids who were five or seven [when the pandemic began] lost a really foundational stage for their literacy and numeracy, but in a sense there’s also more time to get it back. This group didn’t have GCSEs, so this is the first time they’ve taken public exams. Their schooling has been decimated, but at the same time they aren’t getting the same allowances as the last two years.

“We have to have a conversation about what we do as a society to support these young people, whether they’re going to university or not. Because there’s no question they’ve had it hard.”

You can read more from Caernarfon and Leeds on how students are feeling about their grades – and this set of five charts is a useful primer on the significance of yesterday’s results. Here’s some more on what we learned, and what it tells us about the future for this group of teenagers.

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Grades are still high, but getting back to normal

After two years of cancelled exams and grades instead assessed by teachers (after Gavin Williamson’s infamous initial algorithm fiasco in 2020), this year’s students are in a kind of halfway house, with pupils assessed on a mix of examination and coursework and marked more generously than in a pre-pandemic year. The proportion of As and A*s stands at 36.4% – lower than last year’s 44.8% but still significantly higher than the 25.4% figure from 2019.

The problem of how to return to normal is “almost impossible to resolve in a way that will please everyone”, Elliot Major said. “It exposes these debates about fairness – how are you fair within a cohort, but also how are you fair between different years. Maybe you could have staggered it a little more, but I can understand why they want to get back to the previous grade boundaries as quickly as possible.”

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The gap between state and private attainment remains significant

We won’t have the full picture on how pupils from different social demographics have fared for some time, because Ofqual hasn’t published that data. “So the only measure we have for now is private versus state schools, and that is pretty stark,” Elliot Major said. “In 2019, 16.4% of independent school pupils got A*s, against 7.5% from state academies. This year, it’s 28.7% against 13.8%. So” – against pre-pandemic figures - “that gap has actually widened.”

London secondary school teacher Nadeine Asbali writes that the gap is “hardly surprising” given the profound pressures on young people in her community through the pandemic. The proportion of A grades and above fell most sharply at independent schools – but that’s because they were the ones giving the most generous grades to their pupils last year.

Another measure is the gap between the more typically affluent London and south-east regions and the north-east. That’s also grown against 2019 – from 4-5 percentage points to 8 percentage points this year. Sam Tuckett has more on these figures in this analysis.

To Elliot Major, all of this is an index of how much ground has been lost on social mobility as a result of the pandemic. “Before 2020, people like me were saying we’ve made some progress in narrowing the gap. It’s hard graft, but we’ve had a decade of slow improvement. But there are some experts in my area who would look at the last couple of years and say we’ve gone back a decade.”

As a goal, he notes, social mobility is not about “rags to riches” stories of kids from broken homes becoming millionaires: “It’s about getting to what you need to lead a decent life. And unless there’s a big intervention now, that is going to be very much harder.”

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A ‘perfect storm’ is coming

For those in 2022 hoping to go on to university, the difficulties so far are only the start of the story – as that figure of 43,000 not getting a place suggests. “There’s a perfect storm that means this is going to be the hardest admissions round for a long time,” Elliot Major said. “There are just more 18-year-olds fighting over a finite number of places, for a start – that’s a demographic trend that will continue for the next decade. And we know that student loan arrangements are going to get less favourable from next year, so there’s a real incentive to start university now.”

Meanwhile, because of the better results on paper, “lots of universities took on more students last year – a Covid bulge – and just don’t have the space in terms of things like accommodation, particularly the high prestige places. So they’re really having to manage their numbers.”

But, Elliot Major points out, this is only half the story: the teenagers instead going into the working world will be going with one arm tied behind their back. “It’s the poorer pupils who missed the most education during the pandemic,” he said. “Then there have been unprecedented absence rates in schools across the country, and again it’s the poorest pupils who have missed most. We aren’t doing enough for that group.”

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The pandemic legacy

Of course, the story of the impact of the pandemic won’t end with this year’s cohort, even if the superficial numbers begin to feel more normal from next year. Elliot Major points to the catch-up funding: “We had £100bn on the furlough scheme to protect jobs, and nobody argues with that. But we’ve spent £5bn on education recovery. I would argue we need to double that, at least.” Against that figure, consider that Liz Truss is already planning to cancel a corporation tax rise worth £19bn, and give married couples a tax allowance worth £6.7bn.

Whatever happens, it seems certain that the Covid cohort will continue to feel the ripple effects of their disrupted education in the years to come. “We’re all going to have to reflect on whether we’ve got the balance right,” said Elliot Major. “We may conclude that the lasting legacy of the pandemic is in education, and the impact on the prospects of the most disadvantaged young people.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Chal Ravens’s interview with Björk is a rich look at the singer’s pandemic-era life and why she’s really happy to be a “homebody” back in Iceland these days. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Because the UK’s place on a flagship EU research programme was cancelled over the Northern Ireland protocol row, microbiologist José R Penadés lost a €2.5m grant. His warning that the UK is becoming “more uncertain and uninviting” for scientists is a model of controlled anger. Archie

  • I saw a preview of the new film from Ruben Östlund (The Square, Force Majeure) this week, which was fun and disgusting in equal measure. This Variety interview on Triangle of Sadness sees the Swede discuss shocking crowds and sending up influencer culture. Hannah

  • Luke Harding visited Kryvyi Rih, where Volodymyr Zelenskiy grew up and went to university, to write this fascinating piece about the Ukrainian president’s youth. Even then, says economics lecturer Natalia Voloshaniuk, “People followed him. He was an intellectual light.” Archie

  • Cash rules everything around us: Amelia Tait unpicks why notes and coins are replacing cards as inflation bites. Hannah

Sport

Cricket | Ben Stokes inspired a fightback to leave England hanging on to South Africa’s coattails in the first test, with the tourists reaching 289-7 in reply to 165. Stokes took three wickets as South Africa went from 160-2 to 210-6 before a partnership of 72 by Marco Jansen and Keshav Maharaj.

Tennis | Emma Raducanu’s run in Cincinnati came to an end with a 7-5, 6-4 defeat against US No 1 Jessica Pagula. Cameron Norrie advanced to the quarter final with a 6-0, 6-2 win over American wildcard Ben Shelton.

Football | Manchester United are closing in on the signing of the Brazil midfielder Casemiro, with Real Madrid expected to accept an offer of €60m (£50.7m) plus add-ons. Meanwhile, Nottingham Forest agreed a club-record £35m deal to sign Morgan Gibbs-White from Wolves, their 16th signing of the summer.

The front pages

This morning’s Guardian print edition leads with “Water bosses’ bonuses rose 20% amid pollution failings”. “Feeling flush” – the Metro says the bonuses are a “scandal”. The Daily Mail’s splash is on A-level results: “43,000 scrambling for place at university”. Top story in the Times is “Overseas hiring spree to rescue care homes”. The Sun has something from the royal beat peripherally linked to A-levels: “Queen’s grand-daughter works in garden centre”. Edward and Sophie’s daughter Louise took the job while awaiting her results – she’s gotten into St Andrews.

The Financial Times has “City watchdogs face big overhaul in Truss’s attack on ‘technocrats’” while the i says “Truss to face ‘no money’ warning if she becomes PM”. The Express has a story on the Tory leadership candidate as well: “Truss promises new laws to smash strike misery”. The Mirror asks “What has become of our country?” after a man aged 87, who fell outside his house, had to be sheltered under a football goal by his family during their 15-hour overnight wait for an ambulance. “Lockdown feared to be killing more than Covid” – the Telegraph says death statistics may be showing the effects of delayed and deferred treatments.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

TV
Bad Sisters (Apple TV+)
This adaptation of Belgian series The Out-Laws has been retooled by, and stars, Sharon Horgan and – as a result – loses nothing in translation. Some will find it too dark, just as others will find it too comedic given the central subject is domestic violence. But most, I hope, will find the two elements mostly working in harmony. – Lucy Mangan

Music
Aitch – Close to Home

There was a time when a rapper with a Mancunian accent would have got no further than a local label, but these days Aitch has a string of Top 10 hits to his name. At 22, you get the feeling that he is still working out his identity, and the result is a debut album that’s alternately charming and cliched. – Alexis Petridis

Film
My Old School
In 1995, it emerged that 32-year-old Brian MacKinnon had posed as a teenager at his old school in Glasgow. One of his classmates, Jono McLeod, has directed this film about MacKinnon’s true-life tragicomedy, with MacKinnon’s words lip-synched by Alan Cumming (above). A documentary for anyone who’s fantasised about going back in time to reverse all those humiliations. In other words: all of us. – Peter Bradshaw

Podcast
Missed Fortune (Apple Podcasts)
“I’m in a car with some guys I don’t know on our way to somewhere we’re not supposed to be … ” The stakes are high in this nine-part series, in which host Peter Frick-Wright joins the perilous treasure hunt for $1m that retired art dealer Forrest Fenn hid in the Rocky Mountains. – Hollie Richardson

Today in Focus

Why comedian Grace Campbell refuses to be silenced about sex

Comedian Grace Campbell on why after being raped last year, she worried that her openness about her sex life would be used against her.

Cartoon of the day | Rebecca Hendin

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

If you’re anything like us, you’ve already spent the summer building an exhaustive personal list of the best ice-cream in your area. Should you need any more inspiration however, your fellow Guardian readers have your back in this readers’ guide to their favourite ice-cream shops.

Wes Anderson-style delights in Wales? The Peak District’s best pistachio? “Gorgeously refreshing” frozen yoghurt in Greece? Sorbet on Lake Como? Every flavour you could want and more is waiting for you within. Thank us later.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s quick crossword to keep you entertained throughout the day – publication of the cryptic is delayed today, but there’s plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until Monday.