Do A Levels matter?

The received wisdom used to be that only your highest academic qualification was relevant, once you had a degree you could stop worrying about A Levels. Then came the rise in university grades (with 70% of students doing better than a 2.2 in their final assessments last year). Employers started looking back at A Levels again and requiring minimum UCAS point counts for graduate schemes.

Is this fair?

level_playing-field300No. Not to all students. In particular, not to students coming from non-traditional backgrounds. School league tables demonstrate the massive discrepancy between top and bottom performing schools in terms of A Level success. In many top grammar schools and independent schools an A Level grade below an A is considered something of a disappointment. In some comprehensive schools in economically deprived locations an award of an A at A level is a triumph. The bright student in a top school might reasonably expect to leave with 3 A grades while the equally bright student in the less privileged school might do really well to get a B and 2 C grades. The Sutton Trust continues to draw attention to such discrepancies in achievement, with Sir Peter Lampl commenting on 17th March 2015:

“The fact that bright disadvantaged students fall so far behind when they reach their A-levels shows that government and schools urgently need to do more to support able students from less advantaged homes.”

The A Level problem is wider than this though. There are plenty of students entitled to claim that mitigating circumstances should be taken into account when assessing their A Level performance. Bereavement, illness or family emergency can all impact grades and even though schools might have requested “special consideration” students can still feel that awarded grades fail to represent their ability. Then there are the students who just did the wrong A Levels. The reduction in careers guidance support in schools over the life of the last Parliament means that many students have no proper access to a qualified professional able to help them to analyse choices and reach the right decision. Unsurprisingly students whose A Levels do not align with their strengths or inclinations often struggle to do as well as they had hoped.

How does this impact employability?

For most graduate employers A levels matter and it is common to see top graduate schemes demanding a minimum of 300 UCAS points as an entry criteria. Students without the grades do not normally progress.

It is well known that graduate outcomes in terms of employment destinations are better for students independently educated than for those from less advantaged backgrounds. There will be many reasons for this, privileged students develop considerable cultural capital allowing many to approach the selection process for graduate jobs with suave confidence. Family contacts may have helped to secure useful internships, parental financial support at university could have made working less of an economic imperative enabling students to participate in the important on campus activities. On top of this less glittering A levels or in some cases a complete lack of A Levels play in part in limiting success.

So… welcome PwC’s announcement!

pwc150PwC has just announced that it will no longer take A Level grades into account when assessing applicants to its graduate scheme. This is an exciting initiative. Like many graduate recruiters PwC puts applicants through a range of tests designed to identify those most likely to be “ a good fit” for the business and to thrive within it. These tests include application form questions, on line verbal and numerical tests, interviews and assessment centres. It’s not really a surprise that this is giving PwC a more accurate and fairer picture of applicants than can be gained from looking at A Level results. It’s really refreshing to see a company having confidence in its own procedures. Will this pioneering initiative signal a welcome change in recruitment practice more widely? That remains to be seen!

And in the meantime?

Obviously it’s fine if you have those great A Level grades but what if you haven’t? You might be doing really well at university but could still be disappointed in your A Level grades. PwC’s announcement might start a trend towards change so keep an eye on what employers are asking for. Be prepared to network too. Speak to graduate employers, demonstrate your interest in their companies and your commitment and then talk about your A Levels. Often if you can explain the reasons for your under-achievement graduate recruiters will still be prepared to consider you. They could ask you to send your application directly to a named person. You might be able to avoid the cut. As in all things, if you don’t ask you might not get! Don’t be afraid of having a conversation. You have nothing to lose.

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