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Students should apply to university after results and ‘start degrees in January’

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

The university admissions system should be overhauled so students start in January to minimise mental health problems, a leading head has suggested.

Using predicted grades to secure university offers can put students under an “enormous amount of pressure” during their final year of A-levels, according to Samantha Price, head of Benenden School in Kent.

Mrs Price, president of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), is calling for a post-qualification application system to be introduced – and for the traditional nine-term degree to be reduced to eight terms.

Students could use the autumn term to secure work experience and focus on building skills in areas, like financial literacy, with the help of their former school before starting degree courses in January, she said.

In her first comments as she took up her post, Mrs Price said: “I don’t think our current assessment system is any longer fit for purpose and I don’t think our university application system is fit for purpose.

“I don’t think it’s fair across the sectors and I also don’t think it caters for young people’s mental health.”

In June, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs he would like to introduce a system in which university offers are made to students after results day in the summer without the need for legislation.

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently held a consultation on moving to a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system in England amid concerns about the accuracy of predicted grades.

One option being considered would see students apply in the usual way during term-time, but university offers would only be made after results day.

The other option would see students apply to university and receive offers from institutions after A-level results day in the summer – and the start of university could be pushed back to later than September or October.

The incoming GSA president supports a system where students would not apply to university until after they have received their results, and where they would be in contact with the school during the application process.

Mrs Price, who is calling for university to start in January rather than the autumn, said: “I do think it’d be a very good opportunity for meaningful work experience for students which can be related to what their university degree is going to be, or their apprenticeship if that is the route they decide to go down.”

She added: “I think there’s quite a lot of community work actually that young people would really benefit from getting involved in and that also really helps with mental health issues as well.

“So I think if we could look at it nationally, and with imagination, I think there’s an awful lot we could do that would be really beneficial.”

Addressing the current university admissions system, the GSA president said: “You’ve got young people frantically worrying about what their predicted grade is going to be, what the school is going to give them, and there’s always a degree of negotiation with the school about your predicted grade.

“So your predicted grade can quite quickly become an aspirational grade and the pressure to then achieve that aspirational grade if you get an offer I think puts some young people under an enormous amount of pressure.”

She added: “Instead of negotiating predicted grades and worrying about whether they will literally ‘make the grade’ upon which their university place depends, students could focus on their studies and enjoy the friendships and life-enhancing extra-curricular opportunities of their final year of school, which are just as important to their long-term futures.

“We have to recognise that there is a mental health crisis in our country’s young people. Doing away with predicted grade offers and moving to a post-qualification system would minimise the negative impact of striving for the ‘holy grail’ of grades.”

The girls’ school head would like to see more independent school families opting for apprenticeships as an alternative to university, as she said it was time to leave behind a “‘one size fits all’ mentality”

Mrs Price said: “Growing numbers of young people are now considering apprenticeships and I do think that schools which have for years pointed their students towards traditional university degrees should take apprenticeships seriously.”

She added: “I think there’s a lot of confidence building to do around apprenticeships and I think with parents as much as with students because parents.

“I think we need to work with parents now in really explaining what the value of an apprenticeship is and that it’s not the weaker option between an apprenticeship and a university degree.”

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