The last academic year was like no other due to COVID-19. Lessons went virtual. Exams were cancelled. Extra-curricular activities stopped. For A level students in the UK who had been looking forward to their next chapter (be that university or a new job), the back and forth about how their results would be calculated created further uncertainty.

With students in the UK now returning to full-time education at school, college or university, many experts are warning of the significant impact of COVID-19. The United Nations has called the pandemic “the largest disruption of education systems in history” and notes that it has made pre-existing education inequalities even worse.

There are also concerns about young people’s mental health in the COVID era. A survey by UK charity Barnardo’s found that a third of children and young people have experienced an increase in mental health and wellbeing issues, including stress, loneliness and worry. We wrote about how we’re helping the Yubo community to boost their mental health in our blog last month.

As Javed Khan, Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, says, “After missing out on months of school and support, children’s needs must now be top priority for decision makers. Poverty and mental health are rising, and more children at risk of harm, and as always in times of crisis, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged – including those from BAME communities – are hardest hit.”

We know that lots of A level students use Yubo so, last month, we decided to get their thoughts on how their grades were being worked out. We ran two polls – the first one when the Ofqual grading algorithm was in place (10-11 August 2020) and the second one after the government made a U-turn and announced it would be using teacher assessments after all (21-23 August 2020). Our second poll of 960 A level students across state, grammar and private schools in the UK revealed that the U-turn had five major effects.

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1. It created confusion, uncertainty and anger

More than two fifths (41%) of students surveyed said they believed that teacher assessment was the fairest way of assessing A level students’ abilities. Almost a third (32%) were relieved when the decision to use teacher assessments was announced but more than a quarter (28%) were angry that the government U-turn wasn’t made earlier.

17% of respondents in our late August poll admitted they were confused as to what the U-turn meant they had to do next and 6% said the confusion had made them change their mind about going to university all together.

Feelings ran so strong that more than a quarter (27%) took part in a protest about A level results – either in person or virtually. A further 35% said that they would have attended a protest had they been able to.

2. Anxiety levels went up

With COVID-19 already creating stress and worry for many young people, 60% of students who took part in our poll said that the confusion surrounding their A level results had increased their anxiety levels.

Half of respondents (50%) weren’t happy with the grades they received on results day as they were worse than their predictions. This added to their anxiety about what would happen next and, in some cases, meant a total rethink about their future.

In our earlier poll (10-11 August 2020), almost three quarters of the young people (71%) we heard from said they were concerned that economic recession will result in a tougher job market.

3. It deepened inequalities

Just under half (47%) of state school students felt that their results had been downgraded based on their school’s performance in previous years, with only a quarter (25%) of private school students believing this to be the case.

Two fifths (40%) of state school students who responded to our poll said they were happy with their A level results, compared to more than half (53%) of private school students.

4. Trust in the government went down

Nearly half (47%) of the students we polled believe that the government handled this year’s A level results very badly whilst only 8% believe it was handled very well.

43% of respondents said they have lost faith in the UK government as a result of the way it handled this year’s A level results. Almost a third (31%) noted that their perception of the current government has not changed as they did not support it anyway.

More than half (57%) of respondents said that the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson should resign as a result of the confusion surrounding A level results.

5. It forced many young people to take a different path

39% of respondents in our late August poll received results worse than their predicted grades, which meant they had lost their place at their first choice university.

Of those students whose future plans have been affected by their A level grades, 17% are going to take a gap year – our earlier poll (10-11 August 2020) revealed that around a third (32%) of those planning on having a gap year were doing so because they did not feel they would get the full university experience in 2020/21.

A further 13% have chosen to sit their exams in Autumn 2020 then reapply for university and 12% are planning to gain work experience.

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As young people in the UK go back to full-time education and some move into student accommodation, it might be very different to what they had in mind. Social distancing and other COVID-19 safety rules could be in place for a further six months in the UK. Indeed, more than a third of respondents (37%) in our early August poll told us they are concerned about the living situation at university.

The digital world has provided a lifeline for many students during lockdown – over the next few months, it looks set to play an even greater role. Here at Yubo, we will continue to help our 35 million-strong community connect with others and share their experiences. Thanks to our industry-leading safety features, we will offer young people a positive environment and encourage them to build their online resilience.

Whatever their next step – going back to school or college, starting university, an apprenticeship or a new job or taking some time out – we wish the class of 2020 all the best!

How to look after your mental health as the new term starts

Stay connected: Talk to your family, call or text a friend, chat to other people on Yubo, meet up with other students (following COVID-19 guidance, of course).

Be active: Cycle, run, swim, walk... however you want to do it, being active can have a hugely positive impact on your mental wellbeing.

Learn something new: Being back at school/college/uni should make this easy but how about also taking up a new hobby?

Give to others: Whether it’s supporting your friends who didn’t get the A level grades they wanted or volunteering for a local community organisation, being kind is known to improve your mental health.

Pay attention to the present moment: Ever tried mindfulness or meditation? It can be a great way to understand yourself better and enjoy life more.

Ask for help: Speak to your tutor/teacher or your school/university counsellor about any concerns you have. There are also lots of websites and helplines available (see below).

Useful websites (UK)

Good Thinking

Student Minds

The Mix

The Student Room

YoungMinds

Useful websites (other countries)

NAMI (US)

Fil Santé Jeunes (France)

Beyond Blue (Australia)

Kids Help Phone (Canada)