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Why Colleges Have Been The Biggest Loser In The A Level Results Fiasco

Sally Latham, A-level Philosophy Lecturer

The #ALevelResults fiasco has affected students from all institutions and from all backgrounds, but not proportionally 

Sixth form and FE colleges are by far the biggest losers. The percentage of A and A*s in fee-paying went up 4.7 points in since 2019 compared to 0.3 points in sixth form and FE colleges.

This is likely to be due to the larger class sizes meaning that there was little or no reliance on the Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) and instead an algorithm was applied using both the prior records of both the school or college and the students themselves, such as the potential changes from attainment profiles at Key Stage 2. (Channel 4 FactCheck

What FE colleges offer

I have been an A Level Philosophy lecturer at Birmingham Metropolitan College for the last 17 years. That has given me enough time, I believe, to understand what FE colleges offer. We are not a place for the less academic. We should not be a place for vocational studies only.

We are a vital institution for the student who needs something that a school cannot offer. That may be as simple as a subject that isn’t offered in their school sixth form. Occasionally it may be a sanctuary from a school in which (through no fault of the school) a student did not feel comfortable or could not shake a reputation long ago assigned. 

Some young people rightly feel they are ready and mature enough for the independence a college can offer. Some need a second chance. But the truth is that colleges work. We often take a risk on students who need that second chance. Mostly it turns out to be the right decision.

Over the years I have seen the most exciting, bright, motivated and inspiring young people pass through my classroom. I have watched them go to the top universities, often to study Philosophy, a subject they hadn’t even considered before college. I have watched them do it while travelling an hour and a half each morning and evening. I have watched them do it while balancing demanding part-time jobs. I have watched them do it while facing the biggest adversities and the most challenging home lives. I have watched them do it when there are times they couldn’t attend lessons because they had no bus fare.

There are students in this situation in all institutions of course, but colleges have features that have made them even more vulnerable to disadvantage from this infamous algorithm used to award grades:

  1. Firstly, they have larger cohorts for each subject. The education research company FFL Datalab estimate that independent schools enter 9.4 students for each subject compared to 33 for sixth form and FE colleges.
  2. Secondly there may be a bigger difference in attainment from Key Stage 2 or Key Stage 3 and A Level. Some students need the environment of a college, with subjects they are truly passionate about, to start to excel academically. This is why value added data is so much more revealing that raw grades when assessing what impact an institution has on a learner’s progress. However this is the very thing that will count against them in this system for calculating grades.
  3. Thirdly, because FE gives that second chance to so many students and because we are less ‘selective’ than some other institutions in many cases, results may be mixed across subjects. Yes, we have students who excel, but we also have students who have barriers to learning that prove too great, for now at least.  

So how did this algorithm affect college students?

As a college, 55% of grades were downgraded (as opposed to the 40% nationally). But let me break down what happened in my own subject. I had a relatively small cohort of 11 Philosophy students. I estimated their grades based on their AS grades (which, using the value-added system ALPS were grade 1, the highest possible). I also estimated on a par with the 2019 A Level results which were 100% A to C and 55% A grades.  

On results day I found that all but two students were downgraded, one from C to an E. 45% were below the AS grade they had already achieved. A to C grades were reduced to 72% with A grades reduced to 18%. One student was estimated AAA and downgraded to BBC. He lost his place at Edinburgh to read Philosophy.  

So I ask the Government: “On what basis did you decide that this was a fair and rigorous process, when there is no justification from either the students past performance or historical subject performance?”

The Philosophy results at my college have consistently been higher than national average for both similar centres and all centres, including private schools (data I provided by the AQA Enhanced Results Analysis). Yet none of this mattered when a formula was being applied based on what the Government statisticians have decided that students from my college are capable of.  

My students have been let down

In all my years teaching, never once have I felt that a student was disadvantaged by going to a large FE college. Quite the opposite. They work hard, I work hard and we get the results at the same time as teaching them independence. But this week that changed. Because this year my students have been let down, as have so many across the country.

When Boris Johnson tells us more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than before this year, I wonder how many are going to their first choice.  

To any student who has been let down, please don’t give up. You and your teachers know what you are capable of.

To any teacher who like myself has been alternating between sadness and fury, let us keep our heads up and keep fighting to make the difference we got into the job to make.  

Sally Latham, A Level Philosophy lecturer at Birmingham Metropolitan College

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