A-level results 2021: The 4 things to watch out for this week

It’s a week like no other – two sets of exam results in just three days after months of hard work by school staff to reach this point.

Tens of thousands of students are due to find out their teacher-assessed A-level grades tomorrow, after exams were cancelled for a second year.

But is it going to descend into another fiasco like last year? We take a look at the key things to look out for this week …


1. Grade inflation: another year of record results?

Last year, the proportion of A*s awarded to A-level pupils nearly doubled – from 7.7 per cent in 2019 to 14.3 per cent in 2020 – after the U-turn to use centre-assessed grades.

But there is a difference this year. For instance, last year’s grades were based on what students would have achieved *if exams had taken place*, whereas this year schools have been asked to submit grades based on what *students have already been taught*.

Last year’s teacher grades were also awarded with the knowledge they would later be standardised by an algorithm to ensure they weren’t too much out of line.

But there are reports that, overall, grades tomorrow will be higher than in 2020. Exam boards have quality assured grades, but early intel suggests few have been challenged.

Grade inflation is a political hot potato, and students are already concerned their results this year will be seen by employers as “fake grades”. The government had a convenient scapegoat last year, blaming the huge fall-out on a “mutant” algorithm.

NEUs Mary Bousted

So are teachers being lined up to take the flak over a potential rise in grades?

Education secretary Gavin Williamson publicly backed school staff today who he said have “earned the trust and admiration of the whole country”. What government sources tell the national newspapers, however, could be a different matter.

Dr Mary Bousted, National Education Union’s joint general secretary, has warned “any attempt” to blame teachers for grades “will be met with fire and fury”.


2. The race for a university space

UCAS has already predicted a rise in university applications and offers would lead to a “record number” of students starting university or college in the autumn.

For 18-year-olds in the United Kingdom, there was a 12 per cent increase in applications from last year. This resulted in a 10 per cent increase in offers.

Although the organisation said universities are ready to welcome more students, UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant said “incentives” may be needed to defer places for students in “pressure points”.

For example, the University of Exeter was offering a year’s free accommodation and a bursary of £10,000 to delay starting at the university.

But the government acted last week, increasing the number of places available on medical and dentistry courses. Applications for these courses have increased by 20 per cent this year.

Williamson has also urged middle-class parents to consider apprenticeships for their children, previously criticising an “inbuilt snobbishness” towards further education.


3. Will there be a ‘tsunami’ of appeals?

Ofqual’s interim boss Simon Lebus has already said exam board appeals will have to meet a “very high” threshold to result in grade changes, with no scope for  “speculative appeals”.

It is also worth remembering there are a lot of appeals in most years, and last year saw a marked rise with more than 30,000 grades challenged. But there has been some positive noises for this year,

UCAS’s Marchant said last month while she had been worrying about an appeal “tsunami”, her worries had “lessened” recently.

She said: “If we have record numbers – 80 per cent plus get their first place – you’ve really got to be a small cohort that go into the appeals territory.”

It is understood that exams boards have prepared for all scenarios, but believe it will mostly come down to the public on whether they accept the grades. One of the reasons behind 2020’s grading downfall was it did not “command public confidence”.

There may be fewer surprises for students this year. While teachers were not allowed to tell students their final grade, they were able to tell them which evidence informed their decision.

MP Robert Halfon

As John Tomsett, headteacher at Huntington School, explains: “We had 5 pieces of evidence for each subject. All graded. We explained that no one could get a TAG above the highest grade of their 5 evidence grades.

“We published to students 4 weeks before the end of term. We dealt with any concerns then. Transparency & clarity have helped hugely.”

But there are concerns that poorer students face being disadvantaged under the appeals process.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, told the Telegraph he worried the “well-heeled” will benefit because “they will know how to work” the “quite complex” appeals system.

He said: “What will happen is that if your mum or dad is a QC, chances are you will appeal and know how to work it. We need to make sure there is a level playing field.”


4. Poorer pupils might lose out

Private school students are set to be awarded the highest share of top A-level grades, according to reports.

But it’s not clear yet why this is: did independent school teachers award higher grades, or did the lockdown learning loss just hit state pupils harder?

As Laura McInerney, co-founder of Teacher Tapp, said last week, the national reference tests should be able to provide an answer to this.

But Ofqual is not publishing the results of these tests next week, instead waiting until the autumn. The tests are being used to identify gaps in learning for catch-up planning, rather than a guide for GCSE grading.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said most independent schools saw “relatively limited” learning loss as they were able to access online learning quickly.

A Sutton Trust study did find teachers at affluent schools were more likely to face parental pressure to change grades.

But Lenon added: “I don’t think it has anything to do with pushy parents or gaming the system. I know schools were aware of the danger and many sent letters warning parents not to try to influence teachers – they were quite firm about it.”

Marchant also said there was a “danger” the university admission disadvantage gap could widen this year.


Read the rest of our A-level coverage

Top grades rise to 44% in record-breaking year

6 key trends in England’s data

What’s behind the north-south divide?

Less than 1% of teacher grades changed

Private schools see bigger jump in top grades

Attainment gap widens for black and poorer pupils

The 4 things to watch out for this week

GCSE and A-level appeals 2021: Your questions answered

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