New data shows a smaller improvement in pandemic grades for disadvantaged students in Wales

Did students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds see better grades during the pandemic?

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

It’s a question that has been asked numerous times, and although the answer tends to be “yes” (there is less agreement as to why this might be) we very quickly get into the weeds of what a socio-economic background actually is.

In essence POLAR (and thus TUNDRA) is a measure of participation rates not poverty, and the various indices of multiple deprivation (IMDs) are nation-specific and struggle with deprivation in rural areas. With this in mind, HESA has been working with Census data to develop a new area base of deprivation – initially publishing details way back in October 2021.

This new measure is impressively straightforward in design – the combination of information on education levels (the proportion aged over 16 with qualifications below level 4) and occupation (those outside of managerial, professional, and associate professional roles) within a small area is an elegant way to derive insights in a way that addresses the deficiencies in other areas while still providing a reasonable approximation of more intensive and complex measures. It correlates well, for example with income and health data.

So how does it address the issue of grade improvements? Fascinatingly, it demonstrates the need for a UK-wide approach – the pandemic effect is variable across the UK’s four systems of higher education. In Wales, the improvement seen in grades post-pandemic is lower among graduates from deprived backgrounds compared to better off peers, where the positive effect seen in Scotland and Northern Ireland is far greater than what we see in England.

The attainment gap by student background is currently widest in Wales – before the pandemic the gap was wider in England. Of course, this is simply descriptive data – we can’t attribute these changes to Covid-19 or any aspects of decisions made concerning mitigation. But the value of statistics like this is to point to areas where further research could shed light, and what this new lens gives us is a way to compare systemic approaches that didn’t previously exist.

I understand that HESA is working towards the full publication of this new Census-derived measure at a small area (LSOA) resolution. If you work in access and participation at any level, you should be keeping an eye out for that.

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