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A process that locks in unfairness for state school students

Paul Dobson explains how Ofqual's standardisation process cumulatively stacks the odds against students from state schools in favour of independent school students.
This article is more than 3 years old

Paul Dobson is Chair of Business Strategy and Public Policy at UEA

On the eve of A Level results day in England, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced his now infamous “triple lock” process where students could accept their calculated grade, appeal to receive a valid mock result, or sit autumn exams.

He claimed that this would ensure confidence and fairness in the award of grades:

Every young person waiting for their results wants to know they have been treated fairly. By ensuring students have the safety net of their mock results, as well as the chance of sitting autumn exams, we are creating a triple lock process to ensure confidence and fairness in the system. This triple lock system will help provide reassurance to students and ensure they are able to progress with the next stage of their lives.”

The problem is that each step in the triple lock entails bias in favour of independent schools over state schools and colleges, where compounding effects result in gross unfairness at the aggregate level – all alongside the considerable hurt, pain and injustice at the individual level for thousands of students.

The compounding effects of bias build up over each of the three steps in the triple lock process.

1. Standardisation

Ofqual’s process to standardise the results and get to the “right” overall number of grades relies on each school’s performance over the last three years – but accepts that this is less reliable for small subject entries, and so instead places more emphasis on teachers’ centre assessment grades (CAGs) than just student rank orders. The upshot is that the resulting calculated grades favour independent schools because of their smaller class sizes. And Ofqual’s own report shows that the bias effect is substantial.

Independent schools gained 4.7 percentage points more A* and A grades than last year, and far more than any type of state school or college. The consequence is that it gives independent school students double the chance of securing such a top grade compared to a state educated student – which has not happened in any of the three previous years used in the standardisation process in respect of the attainment levels of school leavers.

A significant failing of the Ofqual analysis is to not report on the compounding effect from this individual grade bias to what happens to students from such schools taking three A Levels (as the typical requirement for university entrants). Prior analysis by the Department for Education (DfE) shows that in each of the preceding three years, independent school leavers were on average two and a half times more likely to gain three A grades or better compared state school and college leavers (as the typical requirement to gain a place at one of the top universities).

Ofqual’s analysis of grade combinations fails to provide any details of the impact for different types of schools. However, such a leap in individual top grades for independent schools will inevitably have produced an even greater magnified effect for a combination of three A Levels, resulting in these school leavers moving closer to three times more likely to gain this combination of top grades compared to state educated leavers.

The effect of an increased proportion of independent school leavers having this combination of three top grades is that they will have squeezed out downgraded state school leavers, even if it is just by one dropped grade in one of their three A Levels, for places in the top universities. This explains why so many individual cases featured in the media have been from state school leavers – because of their greater number affected by this biased algorithm compounding effect.

2. Appeals

On Saturday Ofqual rushed to release guidance on the mock exams appeals process and then withdrew it 8 hours later. Any appeals process, whatever it may finally look like, will require schools to put the resources and time into making appeals. The far greater resources that independent schools possess over state schools will inevitably mean that they will be better equipped to make use of an appeals process for the benefit of their students, compared to those from the state sector.

The fact that fewer independent school leavers will have received lower grades than their CAGs compared to state schools will mean that that independent schools will be able to concentrate their resources on fewer appeals, compared to state schools which will be stretched very thin to cope with a much larger volume of cases.

On top of this, well-resourced independent schools will be more likely to meet the criteria for an appeal based on mock exams performance when they are better able to provide the facilities and resources to operate mock exams on a basis that more closely mirrors actual exam conditions and regulations.

The combination of these three elements will work in a compounding way to ensure that any appeals process will significantly favour independent schools over state schools and colleges.

3. Exams

School closures in March due to the pandemic and the cancellation of summer examinations have left students due to take their A Level exams without effective schooling in their subjects for the past five months. Those students who want to improve on their calculated grade have the opportunity to sit examinations in their subjects in October, some seven months after their school closures.

They now have just over six weeks to gear up for taking exams that most students would not have expected the need to take. They will have to prepare for these exams without the formal support of their school or college, as they will have already left those establishments in July. They are literally in the wilderness – no longer being in a school and yet still expected to prepare themselves for school-based exams. Nevertheless, independent schools will have better resources and support to offer their former students, compared to the more limited resources of state schools (especially when their academic year is about to start and so they will be dealing with returning students in the next cohort at the same time).

In addition to this, the wealthier parents of students from independent schools will be better able to afford to buy private tuition for their sons and daughters to help them prepare better for their exams.

The combination of these effects will give independent school leavers a considerable advantage in how well they are prepared and supported to undertake these autumn exams compared to state school leavers. Inevitably, independent school leavers will have a much better chance of securing the top grades while state school leavers are likely to struggle in view of the scales being tipped against them, and so only compounding and extending the bias already evident from the calculated and appealed grades processes.


The hastily created triple lock process has inbuilt bias favouring independent schools over state schools and colleges in the award of A Level grades in England. It cumulatively stacks the odds against students from state schools in favour of independent school students.

No solution is perfect for rectifying the unfairness, but switching to Centre Assessment Grades (with no detriment for awarded grades) is the best option in the current situation because it will singularly and directly address the cumulative bias problem and tackle the gross unfairness of the triple lock fiasco at both the aggregate and individual level.

Until there is a policy u-turn, university WP teams should be taking steps quickly to understand the above impacts and doing what they can in highly constrained circumstances to account for the effects in decisions in coming days.

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