From education to employment

The A-level fiasco is an assault on social mobility. Here’s how to fix it

Rae Tooth is chief executive of Villiers Park Educational Trust

“Is this the biggest education f***-up ever?” asked TES editor Ann Mroz, after watching a barrage of heartbreak, fury and frustration erupt on social media in the wake of this year’s A-level results. “Can anyone think of anything worse?” I’ve tried, and I can’t.

There is absolutely no chance that even the best-designed algorithm imaginable could accurately capture the true ability of every single student in the country and no-one could reasonably expect it to. This is why transparency and right to appeal are so important.

However, the system that has been designed is not transparent, and even with minimal analysis clearly shows built in-bias in favour of already advantaged students. We would have expected ministers to test and understand the consequences of any algorithm before it was applied in such a sensitive and vital area of education. The very least that our young people should expect is a process by which their future prospects would be determined fairly and based on their ability, not their postcode.

At Villiers Park Educational Trust, our staff have stepped up to provide support for devastated students who were wrongly given grades lower than expected. They have been left unsure about their future – a problem compounded by the panicked, last-minute change to the system announced by the government barely a day before results were issued. And, as happens time and time in our unjust education system, it is those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who suffer the most.

This isn’t just an emotional reaction to the countless individual stories of students who feel they have been short changed. Even exams regulator Ofqual has revealed that pupils from less advantaged backgrounds were most likely to have the grades proposed by their teachers overruled, while many in fee paying schools saw their grades uplifted.

The attainment gap – between pupils on free school meals and those who aren’t – widened, as did the gap between SEND students and their peers. The proportion of A* and A grades awarded to independent school students rose by 4.7 percentage points, more than twice the rate of increase seen by their peers at state comprehensive schools. Sixth-form colleges did even worse with a rise of 0.6 percentage points, and some FE colleges reported that more than 50 per cent of their grades had been adjusted downwards. These results smack of bias and discrimination. There is little wonder, then, that one journalist reported that they had been told by two university officials that their September intakes will be their “poshest cohorts ever”.

This is simply not acceptable. This grave injustice cannot be allowed to stand. It sets widening participation back and will follow the graduating class of 2020 through their chosen careers as employers look at A-level results even when recruiting graduates.

Scotland’s government has already been forced to backtrack; ministers in England have no choice but to take remedial action. I, along with fellow leaders of leading educational access charities and not-for profit organisations in the Fair Access Coalition, are demanding the following actions be taken as a matter of urgency:

  • Waiving appeal fees and developing a fast-track appeals process, so that young people can get a quick and smooth resolution to their grade concerns. This includes making sure that appeals can be made easily by those who no longer have the support of an assessment centre.
  • Providing young people who choose to take autumn exams with access to the academic support needed to succeed.
  • Protecting young people from financial challenges during this time, by ensuring that they can access full social security benefits, at least until the exam results are published.
  • Removing the university student number cap, which is a structural barrier to less-advantaged applicants, and has hindered the flexibility of higher education institutions in recent days to offer places to students who have been adversely affected.
  • Replacing the calculated grades with centre assessment grades (CAGs) for all students where it doesn’t result in a decrease in grade awarded. This removes the bias that currently favours those in small subject cohorts.

Universities, too, have an obligation to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been caught up in this mess. And they, along with Ofqual and government, must act swiftly. Universities should not deny a place this year to any student appealing their grades or any student who would have secured their place before the government algorithm denied them.

Social mobility has been widely reported as slipping back a decade as a result of young people missing out on schooling, and the impact of digital poverty, recession and ill health has been felt greatest in the least advantaged families. This year’s method of awarding A-level grades in England will set it back even further.

Perhaps the swiftest and simplest action would be to adopt the Scottish government’s approach of reverting to teacher assessed grades. Every day of delay will mean fewer university places for those affected, increase stress on students and their families, and undermine confidence in our education system. Our young people deserve better.

Rae Tooth is chief executive of Villiers Park Educational Trust, a social mobility charity

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