Practice Conversations In English - How To Mess Up Your Exams Ep 356

A photograph of A level students getting their results, part of this practice conversation in English lesson.

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Conversations In English - UK A Level Exam Disaster

Today we will talk about the slow motion train wreak that is the UK A Level exam results for England. Although we will have a measured conversation in English, I really want to shout and scream, because it’s just so unfair.

Normally students sit exams, and they wait to see how well or badly they did. This year, because of the lock downs, students were not at school and they missed sitting exams. A Level students not sitting exams is a real problem, because they need exam results or they could not apply for university.

So the UK government decided that students would get results based on a computer algorithm that semi randomly chose results based on your school’s past results.

Nothing is impossible. The word itself says - I'm Possible
⭐ Audrey Hepburn

On Thursday the 13th of August 2020, English A Level student were told the results, and they were a disaster. It looks like the algorithm has downgraded (arbitrarily) 40% of students results.

It didn’t matter if you were a straight-A student, top of your class if your school had a student fail in past years, the algorithm needed to fail a student in your school this year, and it was you regardless of how good you were, you were getting a failing grade so the overall school results matched the results it had in previous years.

The algorithm has treated a lot of students badly and there is a lot of anger about it.

Most Unusual Words:


Most common 3 word phrases:

sixth form college4
students and their3
A level results3
18 year olds3
grades for A2

Listen To The Audio Lesson Now

The mp3 audio and pdf transcript for this lesson is now part of the Adept English back catalogue . You can still download and listen to this lesson as part of one of our podcast bundles.

Transcript: Practice Conversations In English How To Mess Up Your Exams

Hi and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. We are here to help you improve your spoken English by first improving your understanding. And we do that by giving you interesting topics to listen to, help with your English grammar and vocabulary – in a twice weekly podcast…..I’m just listening carefully, as I record this podcast as I think there might be another thunder storm about to start, but we’ll see.

Lockdown and A level exams

One of the effects of the lockdown in the UK has been on A level students and their exams. So called A levels or Advanced Levels are what 18 year olds take at the end of school or sixth form college. A levels work differently to the International Baccalaureate or IB, but they’re at the same level of study.

They’re important exams – and when you put together a CV or resumé, you’re still going to include your A level results for the rest of your life! Sixth form Colleges are called this because of an old structure for naming the school years aged 11 upwards, when children go to secondary school. This was the naming structure when I was at school. So ‘sixth form’ reflects the fact that the year when you start secondary school at 11, was called ‘first year’ or ‘form one’. So by the time you get to the years when you’re 16 to 18, that’s ‘sixth form’. So some schools have a ‘sixth form’ and sometimes they don’t, so the children go to Sixth Form College instead.


So students doing A level, whether at school or sixth form college, had their lessons suspended from March this year and were quickly told that they would not be sitting exams in the summer. How were the exam results - which are needed for those wanting to go on to university or further education – how were they to be arrived at? Well, that’s been a mysterious process. So this week the A level results have been published and next week, it’s the turn of the GCSE results – so those are the exams taken by sixteen year olds.

Exam grading and what ‘mocks’ are

There’s been a lot of discussion – and a lot of hard work and anxiety on the part of teachers about how to arrive at fair grades for A levels. Most students take what are called ‘mock exams’ early in the year, which are seen as a fair indication of what their final exam results will be. ‘Mock’, M-O-C-K in this context means ‘pretend’, ‘trial run’ exams – it’s a practice. A level grades are A* for the best students, then A, B, C, D and E, in descending order of achievement. So A is good, E is not – though it still counts as an A level.

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Before I go further, just a reminder that if you really like our podcasts, do go to our website and look at our offering on podcast bundles. You can access the latest 75 podcasts for free on the website. But if you’d like even more material to listen to, even more help improving your English, then there are 250 more podcasts to go for and you can download them for a small fee. You can choose to download them in groups of 50 – or you can opt to buy the mega bundle or 250 podcasts all at the same time. That’s 35 hours of quality English lessons. What more could you want? Anyway, back to the A level results in the UK.

How to arrive at grades for A level exams that were not sat

So what teachers were asked to do, in the absence of exams, was to rank the students. The verb ‘to rank’, R-A-N-K means to put in order, according to merit. This is very difficult in a large sixth form college, where there may be a couple of hundred students taking the same subject and they may be taught by different teachers.

How do you say reliably ‘Ah, this student is better than that one’ – ‘this is the rank order’, when there are over a hundred? Once students have been ranked, then grades have been arrived at by using the same percentages for each grade as in previous years. So a certain % get an A* and a certain % will get A grade and B…. etc. This gets around the problem that otherwise teacher estimated grades are much higher.

Normally – a relationship between students and their grades

In a normal year, the students will ‘sort themselves into rank order’. There’s a Harry Potter type ‘sorting hat’ amongst 17 and 18 year olds taking A levels. Some of them will get down to study and do the work necessary to achieve a good grade – and some won’t. Some will be out partying instead of doing their college work. Some students will drop out – and some students will do much better than expected!


A photograph of a students partying instead of studying.

©️ Adept English 2020

So normally there’s a spread of grades, the full range of grades, simply because 16-18 year olds vary in how well they study. So usually you can see some relationship, some correlation between the effort made by the student and the grade they achieve. But of course, none of this has happened this year. Instead it’s guesswork, prediction – who would have done what? So teachers were asked to rank 100s of students on merit – and where you are in the rankings determines your grade. Some students have benefited from this system, many have not.

This week, for some, little relationship between students and their grades

So the results were out this week. And there were some very unhappy people because there seem to have been some extremely unpredictable results. My daughter for example has been given grades two grades lower than the teacher’s grades – and also two grades lower than she achieved in her mock exams, back in February.

Bear in mind that the mock exams are proper exams – and students usually do less well in mocks than they do four months later in the real exams. My daughter would have worked really hard, studying for her A levels and would have bettered those grades. So to be given a set of results two grades below what she did in her mock, with hardly any work is unfair and quite devastating. None of us are happy.

Appeal, appeal, appeal

There’s already been a government U-turn in the last few days over exam results in Scotland. But they’ve said that they won’t do the same U-turn for English students. It may be that the mock results will count instead, but we don’t know whether this is true or not. So instead of this being a day of joy and celebration for my daughter, we don’t even know what grades to tell people she’s got. It just seems bizarre and random.

Download The Podcast Audio & Transcript

And motivated by the need to smooth results statistically, rather than to do with merit. Many people are ‘in the same boat’, as we say, in the same situation – 36% of students are down by a grade on what was predicted, but only 3% are down two grades, like my daughter. Needless to say, we will be appealing. The verb ‘to appeal’ means to challenge, to contest a result. I’m just waiting to be told what to do next to get it in motion.


Let us know - how has this been handled in your country? What about the results for exams which couldn’t be taken because of the lockdown? Has anyone got a fair system for this? Did you get the grade that you expected in your A levels….or your...the equivalent, or your degree?

Anyway, enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.



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