‘I’m lost’: poorer pupils lose university places after A-level grade surge

Despite being a carer for his mother since he started senior school, 18-year-old Keir Adeleke, from Newham, east London, was predicted A*AA in his A-levels this summer, and had an offer to study law at the prestigious King’s College London. But when his teacher-assessed grades came in at BBC, his hopes of getting into a leading university vanished.

Adeleke and many of his classmates at Havering sixth form college are claiming that New City College group (NCC), the academy chain that recently took over the college, unfairly marked down their teacher-assessed A-level grades using historical data from the college to guide their awards. Sixth formers and parents protested outside the college on 12 August, calling for remarking. Some of the teachers have also questioned grades.

NCC says its process for awarding grades was “fair and consistent” and reflected students’ achievement, but it takes the concerns “very seriously” and is conducting a review of grades, which it says will be completed this week.

On his Ucas application Adeleke’s teachers described him as “exceptional” and “always top of the class” in law assessments. However, with these grades he lost his place at KCL and also his insurance offer at Queen Mary University of London.

“I was confused and angry when I saw my results,” he says. “Initially I thought it was a mistake. I don’t know what to do if this isn’t resolved. I’m lost.”

Watch: Students should feel proud of A Level grades, Ofqual says

On results day he and his mother, Hilary, switched off the television and social media. It was too much to hear stories about thousands of sixth-form students celebrating record-breaking results after the turmoil of the pandemic.

Behind the overall increase in grades, there is another story of marked inequality playing out this year. While 70% of independently educated pupils got As or A*s, the figure was 39% at state comprehensives.

Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, warns that thousands of poorer students who have lost a grade due to missed schooling during the pandemic might have been squeezed out in the rush for degree places.

“There’s a real fear that the hard-fought gains over recent years to widen access into prestigious universities will be wiped away by the deluge of high grades in the post-pandemic era,” he says.

Adeleke is exactly the sort of bright student from a disadvantaged area that the most selective universities want to attract. He lives alone with his mother, and has been a registered carer since he was 11. Missed teaching has not been the only challenge the pandemic has thrown in his path, and he says simply: “It’s not been easy day to day.”

Hilary is suffering from long Covid, which means Adeleke has been “more or less a full-time carer” since January. They have also suffered two family bereavements. And for some of the time Adeleke had to use his phone for schoolwork because the home internet wasn’t working.

His mother says: “I’ve been so proud of him working hard every day despite everything.” She adds: “We both feel upset that a lot of students here don’t have English as a first language and their families have no idea how to go through the appeals process. There is a lot of deprivation here.”

Watch: GCSE results a ‘good reflection of difficult year’, says Ofqual

A spokesperson for NCC said: “The process of converting a score into a grade is complex, especially for a centre of our scale. In some cases, teachers and students have concluded that the final outcome of the moderation process does not align with their own grade assessment.”

She added: “This has led to dissatisfaction which has been expressed to us. We take this very seriously.” The college is going through an accelerated appeals process.

The spokesperson also said: “The college’s internal appeals process was extended to allow students more time to alert us of any concerns. Ucas and careers advisers have been available to students as well as other specialist support staff, and the college has also been liaising with universities to further support students.”

With so-called “high tariff” universities scrambling to cope after thousands of extra students met their steep offer requirements, many university leaders say their ability to be flexible for poorer candidates with potential disappeared this summer.

Adeleke is not alone in realising this was a terrible year to miss your grades.

The vice-chancellor of a university in the coveted Russell Group, who asked not to be named, says: “We’ve had to turn down all our near-misses. Normally we could drop a couple of grades for good students who are at a less high-achieving school or dealing with really challenging circumstances, but this year they won’t get in.”

James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, a charity that focuses on getting more bright poor students into the most prestigious universities, says: “We were saying to universities, ‘Poorer young people have been most affected by missed learning over the pandemic and are more at risk of missing their grades – please bear that in mind’. But it was a really competitive environment this year.”

Experts are also worried that those disadvantaged students who have made the grades could this year find it even harder to settle in because of the general disruption. Even in a normal year, universities know they have to work extra hard to ensure students from under-represented groups do not drop out. Laura Gray, the chief executive of social mobility charity Brightside, thinks keeping these students from dropping out is going to be more of a challenge.

“They might arrive at their university for the first time feeling underprepared in an unknown environment,” she says. “I worry there will be seminars and lectures that are massively oversubscribed in many places and it will be easy for them to fall through the cracks.”

She adds: “Pastoral care will be even more important, but it takes time and energy and needs to be personalised and considered. A one-stop email asking everyone if they are OK won’t cut it, but potentially universities will be under so much pressure that they won’t be able to offer much more than that.”

Mike Nicholson, the director of admissions and outreach at the selective University of Bath, says it missed its widening access targets last year when A-levels were cancelled for the first time and private school grades once again went up disproportionately. This year Bath radically changed its strategy to make sure poorer students were not shut out. “We behaved differently from other universities who may have missed their targets this year, because we realised that in 2020 we had too many offers out and we didn’t differentiate enough on who those offers went to,” he says.

Bath made far fewer offers overall this year to avoid being deluged if grades came out extra high again. But the university also offered to drop its entry requirements by a grade for disadvantaged students who took a new online “access to Bath” course, focusing on preparing them for the transition to university.

This autumn a third of freshers arriving at the university will be “widening access” students.

Nicholson says: “In some quarters that might be seen as social engineering, but we know there are people who really do need some extra support to get them over the line. Not everyone comes from the same sort of educational background and not everyone has people advocating for them.”

Experts warn we may not understand the full impact of the pandemic on the prospects of poorer young people for some time. Elliot Major says the “gaping socioeconomic divide” in top A-levels this year “is really only the start of the story”.

“What matters is how these grades play out in determining who secures places to study for elite degrees that pave the way to life-changing careers and experiences,” he says.