Jonathan is a partner and head of education at Public First

As I write, university admissions teams are frantically reviewing the new Ofqual guidance on this year’s A levels to think about what it means for their entries in September. Everyone is rightly determined to try and make this as much of a normal year as possible. But there are real risks to the widening participation agenda implied by the current situation.

I’d hazard a guess that despite everyone’s best efforts, when the dust settles, we’ll see a higher proportion of people going to university this year who have been privately educated or come from a higher socioeconomic status. We’ll also see more women.

This is not only because of the inherent unfairness and biases of predicted grades, which have been well-rehearsed. It’s also because the calculated grades model isn’t going to be able to take account of either those (mostly male) students who tend to make a really late run towards A levels and do better than anyone thought as a result, or about schools which are rapidly improving, but whose historical centre data means they’re at risk of being downgraded by exam boards if they submit rapidly improved grades for their summer 2020 A level cohort. Such schools are almost all state schools, (typically sponsored Academies) and often in areas of low participation.

Universities have just agreed and signed brand new five-year Access and Participation plans with OfS for a period starting this September – calculated, of course, on the reasonable assumption that the 2020-21 cohort would be entering university based on actual A levels (and vocational Level 3 equivalents such as BTECs), and that their widening participation efforts could run all the way through to May this year.

So what happens if the data takes a big dip this year? Does OfS allow institutions to re-baseline their five-year plans? Does 2020-21 cohort get ignored for data purposes (which won’t just be on access, but also on continuation rates and degree outcomes)? Do universities just face a steeper mountain for the remaining four years of their plan?

What happens to widening participation more broadly?

The disruption to school assessment and accountability spills down throughout all years. GCSE calculated grades will suffer from the same weaknesses as A levels, and will affect destinations and subject choices for new Year 12s. No Year 6 SAT tests can affect the transfer of primary students into Year 7 in September. And this entire period of home learning is likely to exacerbate socioeconomic driven attainment gaps – no one knows by how much, but it’s a safe bet that students won’t all be learning equally during this disruption.

The widening participation infrastructure acts as a counter to this in normal times – whether raising attainment directly, addressing pastoral issues, or helping with university advice. The ecosystem of what makes up “WP organisations” is a complex mix of large and small bodies, university staff and students, and external charities. Many of them depend heavily on volunteers and are very small – and their entire commercial and delivery models have been disrupted. Whether it’s working face to face with primary aged students, taking groups of school children around universities, or intense tuition before high stakes external exams, it’s hard to see how much of this can operate at the moment.

There’s, therefore, a real risk that when we come into recovery and schools and universities will need to double down on widening participation and raising attainment, a lot of the infrastructure they work with may not be around as much. It’s imperative that, wherever possible, schools and universities keep funding these organisations, to help sustain them through this period. And for charities and indeed schools who may struggle to transition to large scale online tuition or careers advice to help boost widening participation, universities have the capacity and civic and moral obligation to support them with that as well.

It might not make the immediate headlines, or executive committee agenda, in the same way as a decline in international students or the postponement of the REF will. But if this crisis isn’t to cause potentially long-lasting effects on equity, it’s important we don’t lose sight of these issues.

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