‘I was more upset than them’: Inside the manic clearing offices of A Level results day
Yesterday, 15,160 students managed to grab a place at uni through clearing. It's an uncertain time where your fate feels completely out of your hands, given over to someone on the end of a phone line. But who are those people?
For the most part, they're students earning a bit of extra money during the holidays. In what's pretty much a call centre set up at their uni, they're manning the phones. The phones are constantly ringing with stressed students wanting to know if they're gonna be able to get smashed at Freshers' after all.
We spoke to a few people who'd manned the phones to find out what it's actually like.
Parents will call up pretending to be their kids, only to get rumbled pretty quickly
If there's anything which shows you're ready to make it on your own at uni, it's having your parents call up to try and sort you a place when everything's gone balls up. Some parents even pretend to be their kids, says Abbey, who's worked on the lines for St George's. "You tend to be able to hear their kid in the background feeding them the information they need," she says, "but we have screening questions we have to ask to catch parents out."
It's usually quite obvious – a test on UCAS jargon sorts the parent from the child.
Mercifully, this doesn't mean an automatic rejection for the applicant. "We just sass them a little bit, give them the good old 'okay now that we’ve got you on the line let’s proceed'," says Abbey
Charlie, who worked on clearing for Hallam said once you spoke to the student it usually calmed down. "I had a few parents who thought I could magic up a place. Normally the younger ones were in a better state than their parents," she says.
— Charlotte Panchaud UPSU (@UPSU_activities) August 17, 2018
Some students will even get their teachers on the phone to try and make the case
When the parents won't cut it, all that's left is to get your teacher on the line. Julia, who worked doing clearing for Southampton, had a headteacher phone up to try and do some negotiation.
"Hello I am the headmistress of so and so school, I'm here with a student and we've had some disappointing results," they said, in a posh accent. "I'm sure there's something you can do, I can verify that this student is capable."
Julia told the teacher she'd have to hand the phone over. "I was polite and just said that I had to deal with the student as it was their future at the end of the day," she says, before she was handed over to a nervous sounding girl.
— UH_Humanities (@UH_Humanities) August 17, 2018
Although it seems like you control their destiny, you don't really have power over people's future
Whilst it might seem like the students working on clearing have everyone's destiny in the palm of their hands, ready to crush dreams and stop annoying people from ruining everyone else's first term, the truth is more scripted.
Each computer has a flow chart of what to say printed out next to it, and in most cases you hand over to a member of staff
"If we could 'obviously' give someone a place we’d ask a member of staff to confirm, sometimes we’d pass them on to academics in their area for interviews," says Charlie. "Sometimes we had to say no."
"I gave people reassurance but wasn’t allowed to promise anything. I couldn’t say anything that would make them think they would or wouldn’t get in before it was decided," says Charlie.
It was a similar set up for Julia, with what would be accepted already set out for her. "In front of you is like a database with subjects and grades that would be acceptable and if they don't meet them there's nothing you can do," she says. "Many subjects like Humanities are circumstances dependent so you can write them down but for students who really failed I ended up advising them to look into retaking or for alternatives."
Today is the day!! Congratulations to all students on the way to Swansea Uni! You’re gonna love it! Can’t wait to see your #seeyouinswansea posts! 🎓👏😀 We have our Clearing helpline team on hand to help with anyone needing to secure a place today. **Give us a call! 0800 094 9071!** #seeyouinswansea #swanseaunilife #clearing #startingnow #success
Posh parents are the wooooorst, apparently
As expected, there's a difference between posh parents of kids who've messed up their exams and state school kids who are shopping around after smashing it.
While at Warwick I worked on the clearing line, which was great fun dealing with elated state school kids with higher than anticipated grades getting surprise places, and posh mums screaming vengeance when their sprogs had got Cs and had to go elsewhere.
— Dawn Foster (@DawnHFoster) August 16, 2018
The state school kids always rang up themselves, the private school kids who fell short always left it to their incandescent parents to call, every time.
— Dawn Foster (@DawnHFoster) August 16, 2018
However, Charlie, who worked at Hallam, says there wasn't really a difference between how state and private school kids treated her. In fact, Lo, who worked at Leeds, said she didn't even have to know which kind of school the kids went to.
Rejecting people is hard, but you get used to it, until you're dishing out '
Ultimately, you are going to have to tell people their dream is dead. "I apologised so much, think I was more upset than them most of the time," says Charlie
"We got taught how to calm people down if they got stressed," she says. "If they sounded really angry or started shouting or swearing we had to pass it to a member of staff to deal with."
Ciaran, who worked in the call centre for Liverpool, says you get used to dishing out rejection. "You become numb to the desperation and raw hunger for education in the end," he said.
"That’s not saying I became heartless or lost empathy, because there will never be any harm in trying to see if there are any vacancies available. I stopped feeling bad about saying a resounding 'no' because it simply became my job. The humanity which I originally held when dealing with these requests started to escape."