A-level results 2023

Our broken regulatory system disadvantages English pupils

The discrepancies between grades for English pupils and their Welsh and Northern Irish couterparts are indefensible, says Jon Coles

The discrepancies between grades for English pupils and their Welsh and Northern Irish couterparts are indefensible, says Jon Coles

18 Aug 2023, 5:00

Our qualifications system has its roots in the mid-nineteenth century when universities decided to get involved in judging the academic standards being achieved in schools and by candidates for university admission. The university-led exam boards became the basis of a national system, beginning with the School Certificate.  Grading of qualifications started in the 1970s.

Throughout this history, a key theme has been the desire of universities to make good selection decisions, especially in relation to over-subscribed courses. Whenever selective universities and courses have become concerned about their ability to discriminate fairly and accurately between good candidates, changes to qualifications or grading have followed.

So it isn’t a side issue that there is now an indefensible divergence in the standard of A levels between England on the one hand and Wales and Northern Ireland on the other.  Proportionately, 57 per cent more A*s were given this year in Wales and 41 per cent more A* and A grades in Northern Ireland than in England.

To put this another way: if the Wales and Northern Ireland grade profiles had been the same as England’s, then in both countries over 37 per cent of A levels graded A* or A would have been downgraded. On reasonably plausible assumptions, the proportion of students in Northern Ireland getting the 3 A grades needed for medicine might be twice that in England.

Just imagine that: your chances of getting the grades to become a doctor might be twice as high in one part of the UK as in another. Not because the schools are better or students work harder but because the rules about exam grading are different. The exams appear the same and to certify the same standard, but they’re not and they don’t.

In fact, the disparity between England and Northern Ireland is now so wide across the whole grade distribution that to get from the Northern Irish distribution to the English would require fully half (49 per cent to be precise) of all NI A levels to be downgraded. The whole point of a national qualifications system is to create fairness for young people. This isn’t it.

The exams appear to certify the same standard, but they don’t

Just for once, the cause of the problem and the solution are both clear.

It was the decision in England to go it alone in introducing 9-to-1-graded GCSEs that dismantled the joint regulatory framework. The absolute commitment of the three nations using GCSEs and A levels to remain in lock step on matters large and small in the interests of young people was not just broken but utterly shattered.

I should say that every UK minister I have known who engaged with three- (or sometimes four-) country regulation of qualifications found it deeply frustrating that smaller nations of the union had an effective veto. But previously, ministers had always taken the view that it’s better to go far by going together than to go fast by going alone.

The regulators of the different nations still speak to one another. They still do some things together. But it is nothing like it used to be – a shared commitment to joint regulation against the same standard. And the regulators cannot return it to how it used to be; each is bound by the policy framework within which they operate.

It isn’t credible to argue that this situation devalues non-English A levels; nobody looks at your CV and asks ‘which A level board did you do?’ It also isn’t true, as some in the HE sector have argued, that universities are somehow compensating for the differences. It isn’t possible to work out whether this particular Northern Irish A grade would also be an A grade in England. Nor is anyone making different offers to Welsh and English students.

The truth is straightforward: it is English students who are disadvantaged and the reason for it is the UK government’s abandonment of three-country regulation.

The solution also lies with the UK government. It is to re-commit to three-country regulation and begin to do the work needed to rebuild it with the devolved administrations.

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