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UK and France: consequences of different exams at the end of high school

While France had decided from the start to take the grades from the previous semesters to count for the high school graduation grade, leading to a higher number of incoming university students than before (in an environment that is already very tense), the UK went the other route but the automated results caused outrage among students and the government also had to backtrack. Two opposite approaches to the same problem appear to have still lead to the same result and issue.

The inability for several countries to organize end of high school exams due to the pandemic has lead to different coping strategies. While France decided from the start to use the grades obtained during the year to determine the graduating grade, the UK went the other route with automated results, which caused outrage among students, forcing the government to backtrack. Now both countries are faced with a higher number of incoming university students than before.


            In France, LeMonde reported a record number of highschool students having obtained the Baccalauréat  with 91.5% of success. The fact that some professors in certain schools might have been more “benevolent” than others has lead to accusations of inequality since different schools may not have the same policies. This leads to a significant issue: 35 000 additional students , compared to last year, will be arriving in universities which are mostly reopening in-person classes (with precautionary measures such as wearing a mask in class)

In an attempt to solve that issue, the French ministry of higher education has decided to create 10 000 new spots in universities to help cope with the huge demand for certain subjects such as nursing, physiotherapy, social studies and paramedical subjects. There is also the fact that since the end of the freshman year exams were mostly done online, which opened up some space but not enough, which means the French ministry for higher education is still discussing on options to handle back to school issues.


            The UK appears to have attempted to avoid having the same issue of an increased number of incoming students arriving in universities, due to very inflated grades. However the UK solution lead to other issues and ultimately the same solution. Indeed, it was initially decided that an algorithm instead of a calculation based on past grades (such as was done in France) would be used to calculate A-level results. A computer based model used by Ofqual to standardise results after exams were cancelled was thus chosen (the algorithm is explained here). It was claimed that without the standardisation, the percentage of A grades would have gone up significantly (which is exactly what happened in France). However this lead to the algorithm downgrading 39% of the A-level grades predicted by teachers leading to outrage.

The system was supposed to avoid the issue that France has had by balancing out potentially inflated scores given by some teachers. However there was criticism similar from the one in France. Indeed, although France had used a completely different solution, there was concern over inequalities between schools, specifically when it came to lower-income students. But in the UK, the same criticism appeared: fear for what the algorithm could mean for lower income areas. The same criticism arose for diametrically opposed approaches.

Following the outrage, the British government decided on 17 August to backtrack on the measure, cancelling A-level results only four days after they were initially published resulting in a system similar to the French one. As expected, this left university admissions extremely worried and warning that they might not be able to have a spot for every eligible student, even though number caps were changed.


The UK and France now face the same issue of having an increased number of incoming students, in addition to reduced space due to necessary social-distancing on-campus. Interestingly enough, neither country seems to have found an effective solution. It appears that in the face of the current pandemic, there is no winning approach for higher education institutions.