A level grades could prejudice university admissions

14 Apr 2020, 9:34

The most disadvantaged students could lose their hard-won offers from competitive institutions if universities are content to rely on this year’s A level grades, writes Jane Cahill

Universities must consider whether they can trust the new grade allocations announced last week. It is comforting that higher education institutions have pledged to work with schools during the Covid-19 crisis but relying solely on this cobbled-together system, borne of a crisis, could shut out brilliant children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Students will now receive grades based on their teachers’ knowledge of what they can achieve, backed up by evidence provided by schools. Teachers will rank each student within each grade and Ofqual will use a statistical moderation tool to adjust these, taking into account students’ prior grades, national expectations and, crucially, how well each school has done previously.

To be just to Ofqual, it’s hard to imagine a fairer system in the circumstances, yet it is far from fool-proof. It uses the best possible evidence and robust modelling, but it’s still a prediction, and young people will be rightly devastated that their grades will be decided in this way and not by how they performed in a formal exam. According to the Institute for Education, only 16 per cent of predicted grades were accurate in 2016.

And it is our disadvantaged students who should be most concerned. Teachers sadly stereotype children from the age of seven, Black students are likely to have the lowest predictions of any group, and teachers will rely on mock exams which overwhelmingly favour the middle classes, and girls.

It is our disadvantaged students who should be most concerned

A critical factor is parents. Middle class parents brimming with the confidence afforded them by their own education will not hesitate to question teacher judgements. Whilst labels such as ‘pushy’ are unhelpful, the fact remains that children of working-class parents are less likely to benefit from such interventions. These are the children of those in the very jobs that are keeping this country going through this crisis: nurses, police officers, supermarket workers, delivery drivers. Our admissions system must account for that.

Moreover, as FFT Datalab analysis has shown, it is unfair to rely on a school’s previous results in small A level samples. If you’re the first student from your school to excel in A Level mathematics, government moderation risks interpreting this as an anomaly and lowering your grade.

All of which adds up to a perfect storm for disadvantaged students with offers from highly competitive universities. Oxford University has promised to “support” their offer holders. Indeed, chief executive of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis has suggested that “universities will also have the power to be flexible in taking an applicant’s context into account as part of the admissions process.” But how will they judge that?

Universities must first show leadership and provide clear guidance on how schools can support judgements. Cambridge University has already asked students to keep a “log of any disruption” to their academic studies for consideration in the summer.  While this puts the onus on young people to gather evidence to prove themselves, it does allow for judgments to be made based on a richer picture of students’ circumstances, and it’s something teachers and students can work on together while sticking to Ofqual’s directive not to set additional mocks or homework. Others should follow suit, prioritising students likely to be disadvantaged from this new system and communicating clearly with schools.

Secondly, universities and schools shouldn’t wait until the results come in to get in touch with each other. Teachers can collect evidence of pupil work straightaway. It may only be useful in cases where grades are missed, but it is time well invested if it takes pressure off the system later this year, when it’s likely to creak and groan under the weight of appeals. Moreover, it can be used in addition to references and personal statements to inform contextualised decisions of students’ true potential.

We are breaking new and challenging ground, but if the NHS can build a hospital in a week then our universities can step up to protect students discriminated against by this virus and by its long-term consequences. The next crop of students must be drawn from the very best from around this country and be as diverse than ever.

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