Ministers are under immense pressure over the botched handling of English A-level results after Scotland announced a dramatic U-turn and major research showed that high-achieving pupils from poorer backgrounds are likely to be hardest hit.
The universities minister was writing urgently to vice-chancellors, asking them to be lenient with their offers and keep places open for pupils pursuing appeals amid fears that this year’s results will not truly reflect pupils’ abilities.
Schools in England are braced for turmoil on Thursday when about 250,000 pupils are due to receive their A-level results following the cancellation of exams due to the coronavirus pandemic. Grades will be issued according to an algorithm that relies on a school’s recent exam history and each pupil’s past exam results, as well as grades submitted by teachers.
A former head of Ofsted, the schools watchdog, said the system was “a mess” and would lead to “huge injustices”.
The Westminster government has been monitoring events in Scotland, where the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon apologised on Monday and promised a review after the exams authority rejected 124,000 grade recommendations from teachers – a quarter of the total – with students from poorer backgrounds losing out by a greater margin.
In England, the scale of downgrading is expected to be even greater. Analysis seen by the Guardian of the algorithm and data used by the exam regulator Ofqual to distribute grades found a net 39% of teachers’ grade assessments were set to be adjusted down before students get their results.
In Scotland, pupils have the right to appeal, but in England only schools are allowed to bring appeals, following a concession by Ofqual last week.
Two pieces of research from four universities underscore the problems that this year’s makeshift system could pose for disadvantaged students.
One study concluded that predicting grades based on previous results was “a near-impossible task”, with high-achieving students from low socio-economic backgrounds more likely to be underestimated.
Academics from UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities and Oxford Brookes Business School studied data from 240,000 pupils’ GCSE performance to see whether they could accurately predict subsequent A-level results.
They controlled for bias and ran additional checks on pupils’ gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status, but could still only predict one in four pupils’ best three A-levels correctly.
Research at the universities of Birmingham and Nottingham, meanwhile, showed up stark discrepancies in students’ experiences of taking A-levels this year, which may put black, Asian and ethnic minority pupils, plus those from state schools, at a disadvantage.
Researchers surveyed 500 candidates and found that while 82% of white pupils were satisfied with how their school managed the crisis, 67% of black pupils and only 42% of Asian pupils felt the same.
There was a pronounced difference between different schools types: 81% of pupils at fee-paying independent schools were satisfied, compared with 67% of pupils in state comprehensive schools.
Prof Kalwant Bhopal of the University of Birmingham said: “Many students felt the pandemic would exacerbate inequalities within schools, including those of race and ethnicity and those related to different types of schools. They felt that sitting exams was one way of proving their ability despite such inequalities and that this opportunity had been taken away from them.”
Boris Johnson, visiting a school in east London on Monday, said he understood the fears of pupils awaiting results. “Clearly, because of what has happened this year, there is some anxiety about what grades pupils are going to get, and everybody understands the system that the teachers are setting the grades, then there’s a standardisation system. We will do our best to ensure that the hard work of pupils is properly reflected.”
Schools were asked to submit the grades they thought students would have received if they had sat the exams, as well as pupil rankings, and exam boards have moderated those grades, taking into account the prior attainment of the pupil and their school, to ensure this year’s results are not significantly higher than previous years.
The former head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw said he thought the system was “grossly unfair” and called for students to have an individual right of appeal. “I think it’s a mess and I think there will be huge injustices,” he said.
“The results will be based on the previous performance of schools and not of individual students. Having worked in schools that have failed an inspection or are in special measures, you will always find children who buck the trend and are doing very well. Individual students must have the right to appeal.”
In her letter to vice-chancellors, the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, called on institutions to be flexible and take into account a range of evidence when choosing which students to admit. “We expect the vast majority of grades to be accurate, but it is essential that we have this safety net for young people who may otherwise be held back from moving on to their chosen route,” she wrote.
Labour’s Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, added: “The government were warned weeks ago about the lack of proper process to address the potential unequal impact on children from different backgrounds, but they were too slow to react.
“It’s not good enough for the prime minister to simply say he recognises the concern. Ministers must give a cast-iron guarantee that the process will be fair and transparent.”
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “I’m confident the system Ofqual has put in place is fundamentally a fair one that will award the vast majority of students a calculated grade that genuinely reflects the grade they would have achieved. Provisional data published by Ofqual suggests that the number of As and A*s being awarded will increase compared to last year and moderation has ensured students from all backgrounds have been treated fairly.
“We know that without exams even the best system is not perfect. That is why I welcome the fact that Ofqual has introduced a robust appeal system, so every single student can be treated fairly – and today we are asking universities to do their part to ensure every young person can progress to the destination they deserve.”