I’m waiting for A level results. 10 August. Not mine, of course, but my eldest daughter’s – but as well as wanting the best for her, it’s brought back that clear sense I had of everything in my future riding on results day. I was always a bit of an exam junkie and so is my daughter, so she’s felt somewhat cheated by the way this year has played out, though it’s not yet been the farce last year’s students faced.
This year and last, though, should be the prompt for law firms to stop looking at training contract candidates’ A levels at all. From these two years, there will be half a million students able to cite the ‘extenuating circumstances’ of the pandemic. Then there will be the long tail of pupils whose pre-A level studies were affected.
The tone and process from firms has changed a bit in recent years. Some openly apply ‘contextualisation’ data to A level results. The opportunity to list ‘extenuating circumstances’ is more prominent.
That’s progress. But why bother at all? Anyone looking at A level grades from this cohort can be sure of almost nothing about them.
For the educationally disadvantaged and late developers A level grades are often a cattle grid on the road to a legal career. And while elite law firms insist that they welcome applications from all universities, taking any account of A levels steers them towards recruiting from the same nine or so universities.
If that is the lens it arbitrarily misses out talented candidates. You can see how this works with reference to another field - rowing. Millions watch the world’s most famous boat race, the annual Oxford and Cambridge grudge-match. You would assume they are the best university crews – and they’re fully not. They only finish first and second when the field is restricted to two teams.
A levels measure what you can do at 17 or 18, not what you become. Why not instead rely exclusively on what candidates are achieving three or four years later? By then any spoon-feeding has been stripped away, and what’s on show will more reliably be the result of the good independent study skills central to success in the law.
So I’d ditch any mention of ‘extenuating circumstances’ for poor A level results. I wouldn’t even have a space on an application form for A levels. The policy should be don’t ask; don’t tell.
After all, firms aren’t offering training contracts to children – though in a sense, of course, for a very long time, this is exactly what they have been doing.