This A Level scoring system is running counter to long standing policy aims: are we increasing the scarring that the Covid 2020 generation will experience?

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14 Aug 2020

Becci Newton

Becci Newton, Deputy Director, Public Policy Research

Follow @beccinewton13

The A Level results are out in England, and it is clear that the algorithm has become very contested. The situation we face was anticipated by many following the Scottish results and these expectations have been met. The UK government is currently holding a firm line. But is this at the unnecessary expense of young people’s outcomes – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

While other commentators are better placed to talk about the weak predictive power of mock exam results in terms of university places (see UCL), there is also evidence that A Levels themselves – and very high scores at A Level – do not predict performance in higher education. Some high achieving students at A Level can then plateau while mid performers can rise. And yet, this predicted high score performance at mocks and A Level underpin the award of university places (although now moderated by drives for contextualisation from the regulator). This is long standing but with students having less control this year over their grades – they didn’t get to take their exams - feels more acute.

Higher education is recognised for its strong determinant role in social mobility. The Blair government set the target for 50% participation and while the target has been dropped, that rate of participation became a reality in 2017/18. Alongside this however is the realisation that not every higher education experience confers the same economic and social benefits. Government most recently has been pushing the economic returns that subjects and courses deliver and directing people to think more about these returns in making choices for HE rather than any social benefits that university study delivers.

Given all these points, I believe we need to question what the algorithm has achieved. Because individual scores are moderated by institution - the place in which students live and study - Ofqual and the government have, in essence, reached a decision that young people cannot transcend their background. This is a constraint to the ambitions for social mobility and has the potential to push disadvantaged young people back out of the system or to poorer quality universities and courses – or at least those not judged to deliver the economic benefits now stressed by government. It is up to their post-16 education institutions to appeal, but surely those more advantaged institutions have the resources that enable them to navigate this situation so much better for their students. Again, we seem to be entrenching disadvantage rather than providing the routes out.

Moreover, what is there for young people whose place is no longer open to them? The labour market is severely depressed with the greatest recession seen in recent times and as IES has predicted all along, young people are worst affected. I have argued throughout that where possible, locking into education to weather this storm will provide protection and the ability to leave with the best skills achievable into the labour market. The outcomes of the algorithm seem to be pushing in the opposite direction of this. Why increase demand for active labour market programmes such as Kickstart, when education can provide a safe space and enable young people to increase the skills they have to offer in the labour market?

There has been a lot of commentary that universities will be flexible and that if young people don’t get their grades, they just need to talk to the admissions tutor. The regulator has rightly pushed HEIs towards greater contextualisation in their assessment of students for the very reason to ensure disadvantaged is not covertly embedded in selection decisions. In practice, there is no guarantee of flexibility and at present it is not clear what would prevent top universities protecting their high achieving status by taking only those students with the highest grades at A Levels. But, it seems that the grading system this year has a strong assumption that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are now the least likely to possess these. Their places on these courses that could be life changing to their outcomes may be at risk of withdrawals – time will tell. If they are withdrawn, what support exists to ensure students can still make a good choice?

While some universities may offer January starts to enable students to go through the appeals process, not all are doing this. If students opt to sit the exams they will bump up against the 2021 intake, a large cohort and potentially with international participation returned to 2019 levels. Will the places be there for them?

It seems to be the A Level marking scheme has run counter to the achievement of some long-standing and crucial policy goals to ensuring our society is fairer and returns good outcomes no matter your starting point in life. This system, at this extraordinary time when the 2020 cohort has already had their education experience severely impacted by Covid-19, seems particularly cruel. While there were questions on the Today programme this morning about whether the ’gold standard’ that A Levels provide would be impacted by using teacher assessment, my belief is that people matter far more than that, and that A Levels have a long standing in the labour market that means they don’t need this action to protect them.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.