This article is more than 4 years old

The admissions problem isn’t just about “prediction”

Amidst concern about predicting grades, are there wider access issues that Covid-19 generates? Hollie Baker thinks so.
This article is more than 4 years old

Hollie Baker is Widening Participation and Outreach Manager at the University of Surrey

Following the closure of schools and colleges, examinations have been cancelled – and the Department for Education recognises that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have their grades under-predicted.

As a result, instead of awarding students their predicted grades, Ofqual has been developing a process that considers a broad range of evidence, including teacher assessment and prior achievement. Students who do not feel their grades reflect their performance will have the opportunity to sit an exam or resit the following year.

Although this system promises a fairer process for students it is still problematic – and further disadvantages students who are already disadvantaged, exacerbating the inequalities within education and the access gap. And that’s all because faulty “prediction” of A Levels is not the only problem.


Under-predicting grades is only one component of an examinations system that disadvantages disadvantaged students – under-assessing and post examination services also discriminate against particular students.

Previous research has shown that teacher assessments can underestimate the abilities of disadvantaged students. For example, when headteacher panels assess borderline student admission in the 11+ exam, they accept fewer Free School Meal students than expected based on their SATs results. Teachers are also less likely to judge low-income students as above average in reading or maths, even when previous test scores indicate so.

Research has demonstrated, when forming an assessment of a student’s likely progress, teachers use information on the past performance of members of that group in that school from previous years. This can impact mock exams, but also, and possibly more significantly, key stage exams which schools usually use to “set” students, thus setting an expectation of what they think each student will achieve which is widely understood to directly impact on student outcomes.

On average, Black Caribbean and Black African pupils are under-assessed relative to white pupils, and Indian, Chinese and mixed white-Asian pupils are over-assessed. Research has also demonstrated teachers and examiners show bias to handwriting, vocabulary and first name based on their own stereotypes.

Post-examination services, such as script reviews or remarking for students who feel their exams haven’t reflected their performance are less accessible to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Exam boards charge a range of fees for GCSE and A-level re-marks depending on what services are required. A review to check all pages were marked and all the marks were added up correctly costs around £8.05 for GCSEs and £16.10 for A levels.

However, a “priority review of marking” can cost up to £59.80 rising to £71.95 if you wish to see your script. If these barriers are not removed at a time when appeals are likely, they may prevent disadvantaged students from making an appeal.

DfE has said the that the past performance of the school will likely be considered as a measure of how much progress students would have likely made at that school. This will disadvantage students and schools who have achieved a significant recent turn around in their schools’ outcomes. In addition, recent Sutton Trust research has demonstrated high achieving schools take on significantly less pupil premium students, suggesting this measure will impact disadvantaged students from lower achieving schools more heavily.

Knock on

As well as the issues highlighted above, this situation will have a knock-on effect for the next few years, particularly for disadvantaged students, which also need to be considered.

Currently, disadvantaged students are thought to be around 18 months behind their advantaged peers, in other words, on average it will take an additional 18 months for a young person from a disadvantaged background to be at the same level academically as their advantaged colleagues.

This period of home-schooling will have an impact on this and likely increase the gap significantly. For example students might have less or no access to a computer, resources like paper, pens, a printer and the internet, or have to share these with other family members and siblings; they may not have an environment where they can work; or they may have parents in essential roles particularly those from NS-SEC groups 4 – 8 and therefore might also have to look after siblings or support other family members.

Where some students will feel benefits from working at home with their parents, some will fall further behind. The flip side to this that most vulnerable students who are still in school have an opportunity to receive a more tailored and supportive education hopefully increasing their confidence, motivation and in the longer term, their progression.

This gap in teaching will also put extra pressure on schools to ensure students are ready for future exams and will likely mean less opportunity for extra-curricular trips and activity. As well as potentially missing out on important Information, Advice and Guidance regarding university choices, open days, summer schools and other essential elements to support students to make informed choices for themselves post GCSE and A-level.

They will also miss out on opportunities to develop cultural capital, opportunities many students rely on for their personal statements. Comparisons between school students’ personal statements revealed that private/grammar school pupils had access to many more work experience opportunities to discuss on their personal statements, whilst the experiences described by comprehensive pupils tended to refer to organised school trips.

What’s needed now

All of this means that we need major changes to the way students are assessed for university entrance. It presents us both with the opportunity to reassess admissions practices to support students who are disadvantaged by the current situation, but also an opportunity to support students who are systematically disadvantaged by the education system to access university – not just this year but the future.

When we are ‘back to normal’ we need to work even closer with our schools and colleges to support them to make up for lost time. Whilst ensuring students aren’t taken away from their studies, now more than ever, our work needs compliment the curriculum, add value and fill the gaps schools aren’t able to provide. This sudden push into remote learning and content delivery might be just as useful for future years, replacing some off timetable outreach activity, to work alongside students schooling.

Right now Widening Participation and Outreach teams, and UniConnect, must focus on ensuring disadvantaged students don’t fall further behind their peers whilst they are at home. We must be creative to ensure they can access resources and support, not only our students, but their parents and carers to feel comfortable and confident enough to encourage and engage their children accessing educational material outside of school, a task that for some will be extremely daunting and alien.

2 responses to “The admissions problem isn’t just about “prediction”

  1. Strong on analysis of the extent of the issue and on the beginnings of a ‘call to action’.

    Perhaps more could have been outlined as to what a programme of action would consist of; specifically where should the balance be set between online and off-line and in relation to off-line engagement how might schemes be developed which are both genuinely creative and which are capable of being developed with respect to social/physical distancing norms balancing one-to – one and small group interactions.

    Looking towards the next couple of entry cycles one possibility might be either direct encouragement or better stakeholder agreement or sector regulation that UCAS references could/should include a field where the impact on students/schools of the lockdown as to availability, take-up and extent of engagement with online learning was described; household specific information about extent of access to learning resources/availability of private/shared study space could also be flagged so that receiving institutions could take this additional contextual detail into account when evaluating applications.

    This would only work where disadvantaged applicants and their families were given confidence explicitly by the sector – and leading selective institutions within it – that such information would only be used by selectors to the advantage of the applicants concerned.

    Finally at the other end of the spectrum this provision could also assist institutions international recruitment by enabling international referees to comment directly on the Covid/lockdown impacts on the learning of international applicants to uk higher education of school closures and for example constraints on the availability of English language and other preparatory provision and subject to the same sectoral assurance that such information always would only be used and interpreted to the benefit of the applicant.

  2. Well done on highlighting all the bias and inequality that happens before we even get to predicted grades! And the many different experiences of home schooling across the advantage/disadvantage spectrum. This crisis has lifted up the carpet and shone a light on what socio-economic disadvantage actually means. Time for a re-think in outreach as well as admissions?

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