For 18-year-old Luke Patterson, it was a "results day like no other".
He was one of thousands of students in the North who received A Level, AS Level and B-Tec grades on Tuesday.
For the second year in a row exams were cancelled due to Covid-19, with A Level grades instead determined by teachers based on a range of evidence which could include internal exams, mocks and coursework.
Luke, a student at Methodist College, Belfast, was "over the moon" with his marks – three A* grades and one A – which secured him a place at the University of Cambridge to study human, social and political sciences.
Once the news had sunk in, he admitted the feeling was mainly of relief.
“It’s been such a long wait. I finished school in April... this is the day we’ve been waiting on all summer, and that our futures were going to be decided upon.”
If it was a results day like no other, Luke’s year group have also had an A Level experience like no other. Asked what it was like, he replies simply: “Awful.”
Students spend two years working towards their A Levels; Luke’s year group “basically lost a calendar year of face-to-face teaching”.
“We were off from March to June last year, then we were only back at school for three months and then at the end of November there was a massive Covid outbreak at my school, I caught Covid... we were closed then until the end of March [due to another lockdown], we were out of school.”
Particularly during the first lockdown, he found the stress and anxiety of trying to study from home “simply unbelievable”.
“Your whole life was school, basically, because there was no separation. Your school life was your home life, and vice versa.”
On his first day back in March, he “had a maths exam which was an hour and a half long which was basically half my A Level, so not being in school for months and going straight into an exam hall, you can imagine what that does to you in terms of getting obsessive when it comes to studying and your priorities changing as well.”
Mental health issues
The vice-chairman of the youth wing of the Alliance Party, Luke represents South Belfast in the UK’s Youth Parliament and has campaigned on mental health issues. He describes it as the “toughest year mentally in my life”. Of his peers he says: “I have never seen it so bad.”
They are experiencing anxiety, depression and PTSD; when he surveyed the mental health of his year group “the average score out of 10 was less than three, and that was 279 pupils”.
“People give this reputation to teenagers but, my God, this cohort is the strongest, most emotionally resilient group I’ve ever met.”
On results day, they received record-breaking grades, with just over half of entries marked at either A* or A.
“If any year group of young people deserve to have high grades, it’s this year group, after everything we’ve been through – and that’s not out of pity, this was the best ever GCSE cohort so it would make sense for that to rise.”
For himself, he admits the challenges of the pandemic “have made me think, ‘I’m going to push myself’. That’s why I applied [to Cambridge], that’s why I want to go away from home.
“I can’t wait, just for a new start.”