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Students in exam hall

Students in exam hall, Photo: University of Saskatchewan Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article

A-level results compound and reflect the deep inequalities that disadvantage working class children, argues Terina Hine

After a hugely challenging two years of study, today is results day for young people finishing school or college; the annual day when students across the country celebrate the end of 13 years of schooling. Many will be jubilant while others will commiserate as they receive the A level, Btec and Higher results which determine the next few years of their lives. In keeping with this annual ritual, commentators in the media will berate this year’s results for lowering standards through grade inflation.

The cries of grade inflation feel like the proverbial stuck record, but this year things were unique - and commentators should recognise this. Not only were students assessed differently than in past years, but their entire experience of sixth form or college took place in a pandemic. And just as with the rest of the pandemic it has been the disadvantaged who have suffered the most.

Since March 2020 there have been two major periods of school closure, and even when schools and colleges were open many year groups and class “bubbles” were sent home to isolate, often multiple times. Today we appear to be witnessing an outbreak of national amnesia over the difficulties candidates and teaching staff faced over the course of their post-16 education.

Attempting to avoid last years chaos, the algorithms used by the exam boards are nowhere in sight. Instead this year the grades were based on teacher assessment. But let us be clear: these were not estimates, as some have implied, based on what teachers thought their students might achieve, nor were they based on whims, with Jean Brodie-like teachers choosing their favourites and submitting A and A* grades accordingly.

In most cases students sat several assessments - in common parlance exams - which teachers marked to produce evidence of the grades, which were submitted to the examination boards. The grades were scrutinised by the boards, in some instances the boards intervened and grades were revised. According to research conducted by The Sutton Trust 96% of teachers used one or more exam condition assessment to calculate their students’ grade, 63% used mock exams and 80% used past papers - clearly many used both.

Yet there has been a significant rise in A* and A level grades. In “normal” times the top grades account for a quarter of all results, this year they account for almost 45%. The vast majority of this increase is from the independent sector - 39.5% of independent school students gained an A* this year compared to 16% in 2019; seventy per cent of candidate’s at fee paying schools gained a top grade (A or A*) compared with 39% from comprehensive schools. Students in the more affluent South have also outperformed those in the North.

So why has this happened? The answer lies not just in our massively unequal education system where the privately educated often outperform their state-educated counterparts, but also our massively unequal society.

According to the Sutton Trust these grade disparities are mostly due to the unequal impact of the pandemic on the already disadvantaged, compounded by the lack of support given to schools - especially those with a high proportion of disadvantaged students. Remote learning was of variable standards across the education system, and the ability of a student to access such learning was dependent upon internet connections, laptop availability and having a suitable place to study. All of which favoured the affluent.

Making things worse, the most disadvantaged students were sent home more frequently once schools returned to classroom teaching, still with less access to online learning. This unequal provision was aggravated by lack of support from the government for the new assessment regime, with complicated information often provided to schools at the last minute. So those schools and parents with the greatest resources and "savvy” were unsurprisingly “most adept at navigating these complex waters”.

These disadvantages will now roll over into accessibility of university places - especially for the more competitive universities. Applications are up yet the more competitive institutions are offering fewer places; competition is such that some headteachers are reporting that students expected to get top grades have been rejected from all their choices.

Having admitted record numbers of students last year, campus space is nearing capacity in many institutions. University admission tutors concerned about grade inflation are more likely to trust teacher assessed grades from traditionally high performing schools for the places they have to offer: the algorithms may have gone but the disadvantages faced by high achieving students from low achieving centres remain acute.

This year’s results day was always going to be different thanks to the pandemic. The assessment system was hastily introduced and would definitely benefit from improvement, but a backlash against increasing numbers of top grades, with calls for a return to traditional exams, will not produce a better system. Many argue teacher assessment is fairer, some prefer externally set and standardised exams, while others want a mixture of both.

But if fairness is the goal, one thing has been made abundantly clear in 2021: tinkering around the edges of an education system skewed so heavily in favour of the advantaged will fail.

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