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What comes next?

Record numbers of students have achieved top grades and a place at their first choice of university

students smiling
Getty/Drazen Zigic

Last week as I was sat at my desk, I found myself casting occasional nervous glances at my phone as I waited for an update from my younger sister as to her GCSE results.

It was a day that has been somewhat difficult to imagine through the hurdles of the past year. From a year 10 that saw students move to join classes virtually (she is now the most proficient Zoom-er of us all), to a final year marred by further lockdowns, bubbles and exam cancellations – on top of both the anxiety around the pandemic, as well as the typical nerves about future studies and careers.

Following another year in which exams were cancelled due to the pandemic, GCSE and A level students have seen record sets of grades, with the number of students receiving top GCSE marks rising to 28.9% from 26.2% last year, and 44.8% of A level entries reaching A or A* grades – up 6.3% from 38.5% last year. 

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) found that a record 395,770 students had a confirmed place on their first-choice university course in the UK, up 8% on last year. 

Huge congratulations are due to students who have worked through two years of disruption, and a warm welcome to any students set to join optometry schools in the autumn term. If you are preparing to start university, why not take a look at our student articles or have a read of OT’s university survival guide.

With the joy and relief of results day having passed, however, eyes are now turning to the challenges posed in the system, and what comes next, hinting at some of the longer-term effects of the pandemic we might see creeping into the years ahead.

Looking at the new cohort of students set to join, universities have been flexible in accommodating as many students as possible to their first choice of university, UCAS chief executive, Clare Marchant, explained. However, some universities have still highlighted challenges in offering places to all of the students who have reached the requirements.

Some courses in medicine and dentistry are particularly under pressure. Already competitive courses with limited places have seen an increase in applications, with the Government moving to fund additional places, and the Department for Education introducing a scheme to compensate applicants of oversubscribed medical schools who would be willing to undertake their courses at different universities.

Attention is also turning to how exams and grading will work next year – and the lessons that need to be learnt.

Highlighting the hidden and ongoing impact the pandemic could have on future cohorts of students, the report by the Institute for Government warned “even if exams can be sat in the usual way next year, they cannot be assessed as usual, as a sudden return to the 2019 grading model would heavily penalise the 2022 cohort.” 

The report makes a number of recommendations for the Department for Education and Ofqual when deciding on grading for 2022, such as using 2020 grades (not 2019 grades) as a baseline noting “while this ‘bakes in’ some grade inflation, it is fairer on next year’s entrants, who will compete most closely with COVID-era cohorts for university places and jobs.”

Ahead of welcoming the new cohort of students, universities are also working out how to bring students safely back onto campus. Though universities are able to return to face-to-face teaching, many have suggested various blended approaches to mixing in-person seminars and smaller-scale teaching with larger lectures delivered online, or continued approaches to COVID-19 safety measures.

A report by the University and College Union (UCU) Scotland saw demand for a “safety-first” approach to the new term, “to avoid the disruption of last year and to keep all students and staff safe.” Measures requested included enhanced ventilation, continued use of face coverings indoors, and delivering larger classes remotely where possible. 

Meanwhile, students are gearing up for another year of studies, graduates are setting out on their pre-registration placements, and current pre-regs are working towards each milestone along the journey to qualification – take a look at our Pre-reg focus series for an insight into the process. 

Speaking to OT recently, Huda Hathaf, a soon-to-be third year at Cardiff University and AOP student representative, shared that a concern for some students is the “uncertainty of the future,” sharing: “Whilst it can be intense thinking about life after university, accepting the situation we are in gives us the ability to make things better and look for areas of improvement.”

Having explored the impact of the pandemic on students earlier this year, OT is planning to revisit this topic, particularly looking at how the pre-registration experience might have changed – from application through to the in-practice experience.

If you are a student or pre-reg who would like to share their thoughts around the process, or if you have become a pre-reg supervisor for the first time during the pandemic, we would love to know more. 

OT  asks…

Is a pre-reg placement being offered in the practice where you work this year?

  • Yes, the practice where I work regularly offers a pre-reg placement

    9 32%
  • Yes, the practice will be offering a pre-reg placement for the first time

    2 7%
  • No, the practice where I work does not offer pre-reg placements

    14 50%
  • No, the practice has paused offering a pre-reg placement during the pandemic

    2 7%
  • The practice where I work already has a pre-reg in practice from a previous year

    1 3%

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