The word “unprecedented” has been overused in recent months, but in an unprecedented year, the A level and Highers results period has seen unprecedented anxiety, distress and confusion.
The slow-motion car crash of Ofqual’s moderation of A level results this past week, compounded first by the last-minute announcement that mock exam results would be used to support appeals against awarded outcomes, and then by revision and withdrawal of the appeals process continues to astound onlookers.
But it has been far worse for those caught up in the collision between algorithmic and regulatory ineptitude. This entire situation has been immensely confusing and upsetting for many students, their families, and their teachers, and has placed a huge strain on staff at schools and in university admissions departments.
Much has been and will be written about how this scenario has come about, but the critical aspect that we believe requires urgent action is the negative impact of the grading scheme on students who have defied their socio-economic circumstances in their educational achievement. This directly undermines all the work done by universities to improve equality, diversity and inclusion.
At the time of writing, we don’t know how the numbers are going to play out in terms of the impact on access to university for different groups of students and different sections of society. But we do know that the situation that A level students, their families, and universities now find themselves in doesn’t feel “fair”.
Fairness is core to a successfully inclusive and diverse setting. Equality can often wrongly be interpreted as meaning we should do the same for everyone. This is not the case. Equality of opportunity is frequently achieved by actively recognising disadvantage, and proactively working to address it to level the playing field.
Universities have been working hard over many years to consider how this might best be applied in enabling equality of access to university – through provision of summer schools to support those who may be considering applying, through activity embedded in the community to support the educational aspiration of students where there is not a traditionally high number of participants in higher education, and through much-discussed contextualised offers.
But all of these interventions have also depended on the notion that, once a student receives their A level grades, these results will be recognised as a “fair”’ representation of their performance, ability, and, perhaps most importantly, their potential. Surveys conducted by The Sutton Trust in April and July already revealed significant worries among young people about the grading process and how that would impact their chances of getting into their preferred university and course. This year, many students who received their grades have no confidence in the fairness of the process which has been applied.
This is being seen in a couple of different ways. First, there has been much discussion about the impact on schools which traditionally have not had high numbers of high-achieving students. Whilst the aggregate figures from these schools show that there has not been a significant year-on-year change overall, these figures mask the injustices done to individual students who have beaten the law of averages.
So a particularly strong year group who followed a couple of weaker year groups, or a school with a recent improvement in leadership or teaching is likely to have more students who have been awarded grades which are lower than their predicted outcomes.
Students who find themselves without the grades for their preferred university now face several different options: appeal, sit “retake” exams in the autumn (with associated loss of earnings and potential costs of additional tuition or support), or choose a university with lower entry grades. All of these options have clear potential to exacerbate the under-representation of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds in our most selective institutions.
For the students themselves, the experience of being on the receiving end of a system that does not see them as individuals is likely to be a cruel blow to their confidence. Universities are going to have to work even harder to build learning environments that are credibly inclusive.
(Initially) underperforming applicants
There is a second significant group of students who have received less attention in the national press. Many students, for a number of reasons, underperform in mocks. Mocks have many purposes, but one of them is to provide a practice experience not only for students, but for their families, and their schools or colleges.
Sometimes, a lower performance in a mock exam is that essential “kick” to encourage the students to work more for their final sittings. Some schools choose to mark mock exams more harshly, to give a stronger kick, while others take a more standardised approach. This variability complicates the interpretation of mock results, and this year will have a significant effect on final grades after appeal.
On occasion, performance in or response to a mock exam identifies additional support needs for students which then directs further actions which are put in place. All the students of the class of 2020 missed that ramp up of activity between March and June – a time when many of these interventions which reduce inequality in performance are most powerful.
Even if students are able to obtain late university places, or have their awarded grades adjusted upon appeal, they will still have challenges around accommodation and last minute preparations for university – another difficult experience in an extraordinarily difficult year. Ensuring that all students, especially those who have had to navigate a difficult and confusing appeals process, are supported to feel a strong sense of belonging once they begin their university studies, will be challenging but critical to inclusion.
The situation in which we find ourselves is not fair. It is traumatic for many students (and many parents) across the country. And it has the potential to set back some of the significant progress that universities have been making towards widening participation, reducing inequality and improving inclusion. So we must act to limit this damage where we can.
What can be done?
At time of writing, the situation for this year’s students is still changing, has changed several times during the composition of this article, and will continue to change. We therefore focus here on longer term interventions that should be considered.
We should reconsider how we can use unconditional offers for next year’s admission, being as open as we can to how we can support those students who have been adversely affected this year, and who have elected to re-apply next year. Unconditional offers may not be the right or only answer, but this may be one of those specific instances in which they are the fairest way to proceed.
If students wish to retake during 2020-21, government should provide the resources to support schools and colleges to enable this to happen, beyond paying for the fees to appeal and for autumn exams, and allowing the cost of unsuccessful appeals to be claimed back by state-funded schools and colleges.
Some A level and Highers students will not have had the full learning experience enjoyed by students from previous years, and now, many will be coming to university having had a knock in confidence after the handling of the A level results. Universities will need to address this for incoming students in September 2020.
We should actively review how we can leverage existing schemes, such as UniConnect, to ensure that we are not excluding any members of the “missed cohort” from this year. This could enable us to maintain engagement and ensure that we do not lose applicants who may choose to defer their university choice until next year.
Government should ensure that data that enables clear and transparent equality analysis is available, and use these data to provide resources to mitigate against any disproportionate impacts. We also need to ensure that, alongside the recent, welcome, announcement that schools will not be charged for submission of appeals, that the appeals process itself is not short-changed in any way.
Universities should aim to be as flexible as possible to mitigate the injustices of the Ofqual algorithm. But to allow them to do that, the government must immediately adjust the rules applying to its cap on student numbers, so that universities are not financially penalised for helping to solve a problem they did not create. This is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to show that his talk of “levelling up” is more than just words.
These are some initial suggestions. There may be more. Now is not a time for us to compete between institutions. We need to work collectively to support this generation of students. By doing so, we hope that we will more quickly redress the imbalance that will result from this year’s disruption.
The authors are all members of NEDIAL (www.nedial.ac.uk) – a group for Academic EDI leads, which provides a forum to share best practice, provide mutual support and provide a collective voice to understand and inform sector-wide EDI issues.