Helen Barnard, Deputy Director of Policy and Partnerships, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

#ResultsDay 2020 - A fog of uncertainty has created a new peak of anger and worry 

Before coronavirus, too many young people from poorer backgrounds were shut out of opportunities to get good qualifications and decent jobs. In a compassionate and just society, it is unacceptable for them to also pay the price of a global pandemic.

Results Day. It’s always nerve-racking. There’s always controversy. But this year the fog of uncertainty that has permeated so much of life in recent months has created a new peak of anger and worry. How to award qualifications to a generation that has been mostly out of school since March and hasn’t been able to take exams was always going to be a massive headache. There was probably no perfect way to resolve it.

The problem is balancing two competing imperatives. Award grades which students, families and schools feel are a fair reflection of their work and achievements. Whilst avoiding a level of grade inflation which would devalue results, leading universities and employers to rely on other ways to select young people for courses or jobs.

That matters because those other methods (interviews, written statements, clubs and activities) disadvantage young people from poorer backgrounds, many of whom have been shut out of the extra-curricular activities and coaching in soft skills which richer children have access to.

Stubborn attainment gap across the UK

We have had a big and stubborn attainment gap across the UK for many years. The focus today is on A-level results, but less than half of young people from poorer backgrounds get five good GCSEs. They’re already locked out of most pathways to university, higher level qualifications and good jobs. Of those who do make it to A-levels, they’re around half as likely as those from richer backgrounds to come out with two or more A-levels. The biggest danger in the current situation is that these unacceptable attainment gaps widen even further.

We have already seen lockdown hit children from poorer backgrounds harder than those from richer families. Less likely to have a school providing good on-line education. Less likely to have digital access, a quiet place to work, essentials like food and education supplies.

These unequal effects of Covid could be compounded by an approach to exam results which relies in part on a school’s track record, since young people from low income backgrounds tend to go to schools with worse results. It may also be reinforced if the appeals process depends heavily on students, parents and schools assertively challenging results and skilfully navigating a confusing system. Families and schools who are trying to stay afloat whilst caught up in deepening poverty are likely to have less time, energy, confidence and knowledge of the system than those in areas where the essentials of life are taken care of.

The design of our labour market

All of this is given increased importance by the design of our labour market. If you leave full-time education without good qualifications, you are likely to end up in a job that is low paid, with few opportunities for progression and little access to training which could help you move up. Funding and participation in adult education has fallen of a cliff in the last decade. Second chances and opportunities to change direction are thin on the ground, unless you already have good qualifications.

Employment rates are far higher for those with higher qualifications. There is a big pay gap between workers who have a degree or higher qualification and those who have lower qualifications. And, as more people go to university and jobs change, workers with no qualifications or only with GCSEs or A-levels have been slipping further behind. Someone with a qualification below degree level is twice as likely to be locked in poverty compared with someone with a degree.

Today, attention will be on the details of how marks have been awarded and how appeals will work. But the government must also look beyond these vital questions. There have been encouraging signs of plans to help young people entering the toughest labour market in decades, with the Kickstart programme and renewed focus on apprenticeships.

However, we have not yet seen enough action to bring forward skills funding and support for targeted training programmes, linked to high quality job opportunities. In a just society, we must ensure that every young person can access high quality training that leads them to a job which is secure, pays enough for a decent life and offers progression opportunities.

Helen Barnard, Deputy Director of Policy and Partnerships, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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