Supporting A level students into higher education in 2020 – some rays of light and an idea to ponder?

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17 Aug 2020

Emma Pollard

Emma Pollard, Principal Research Fellow

This summer’s A level exams were cancelled due to school and college closures, and an emergency system was introduced to calculate grades. For 2020, A level results were calculated using centre-assessed grades – essentially the grade teachers felt a student would have achieved if they had sat their exam, and a rank order for each subject. These were then standardised by reference to the past performance of centres and the prior attainment of candidates with the intent to create a level playing field and ensure the distribution of grades follows the pattern of other years. The results were announced on Thursday.

The big picture for A level results day is that a higher proportion of students achieved an A* or A grade than in 2019 (27.6%, up by 2.4 percentage points), on average 2.67 A level qualifications were awarded per student which was almost the same as for 2019 (2.66), and a slightly higher proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds gained an A* or A grade (21%, up by 1 percentage point) than in the previous year. Interim analysis published by Ofqual this month – the qualifications regulator in the UK – concluded that the awarding process in 2020 had not introduced bias and differences found in grades for students with different backgrounds and characteristics were similar to those found in previous years. 

Good news, right?

But what about the situation for individual students? The controversial bit is the difference between teacher assessed grades and the final grade awarded (after standardisation). In the main, teacher assessed grades were higher (more optimistic) and so the standardisation process pulled grades down. Overall: 35.6% of grades were lowered by one grade, and 3.3% were lowered by two grades. This will impact significantly on the students affected, particularly those who were planning on going to university or college this autumn. Many may now not have the grades they needed to secure their desired higher education place. A further troubling outcome is that some parts of the education system appear to have fared better than others: Independent schools saw the greatest proportional increase in A*/A grades (48.5% of their students achieving A* or A, up 4.7 percent points on 2019), subjects and providers with small cohorts were more likely to rely on teacher assessment (and so not be subject to adjustment and potential downgrading), and differences between teacher assessed grades and final grades (after standardisation) are larger at lower grades for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This means some students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – studying in low attaining schools and/in neighbourhoods where relatively few go to university – may be further disadvantaged in their plans for higher education by the 2020 awarding process. There are several things the sector itself is geared up to do that could help to mitigate the fallout from the emergency A level awarding system.

Firstly, the influence of and commitment to Access and Participation Plans (APP). All HE providers who charge higher level tuition fees have to have a 5-year Access and Participation Plan. These set out how they will work to improve equality of opportunity for under-represented groups to not only access HE but to have a successful HE experience. Each university sets out its ambitions and targets, and activities to achieve these and the plans are monitored by the Office for Students, the sector regulator, who can impose penalties on providers. This means each university and college needs to ensure they are following their plan and providing opportunities to the most disadvantaged and can use the APPs to leverage internal action.

Secondly, the increasing acceptance and promotion within the sector of ‘contextualising’ application data means contextualised admission practices can really step up to the plate and try and undo the damage of the standardisation algorithm. This is where universities and colleges take account of a wider set of information and metrics when assessing an applicant to try to identify potential and form a more complete picture of an applicant in the light of their educational and socioeconomic background. This means universities and colleges can and often do look beyond raw A level results and use wider data such as school attended, where a student lives and involvement in widening participation activities; and draw on the personal statement and reference to make or confirm an offer which is usually lower than their standard offer. Indeed, the Chief Regulator of Ofqual wrote to all Admissions Directors of HE providers on 7th August to reassure them that grades in 2020 will reflect students’ abilities but also to ask them: ‘wherever possible, to be as flexible as you can towards students who might have missed out on their offer, for example by using contextual information.‘ Some universities have already used contextualised data when making their conditional offers but can continue to be flexible when confirming offers or making new offers now A level results are out, taking account of location and school performance but in the opposite direction to the standardisation algorithm.  

Thirdly, the success of widening participation programmes. There are many individual provider and collaborative programmes within and across localities aimed at improving opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access higher education. These help with awareness of options, confidence in decision-making, aspirations around higher education and attainment, and can help with transitions to HE. They often work by demystifying higher education and bringing individuals and institutions closer together. They tend to work with students from Year 11 onwards, involve a range of activities and support over a substantial period of time (mentorships, summer schools, master classes, conferences, projects, visits), and thus can help to develop relationships between young people and universities or colleges. So individuals in these programmes or having graduated from these programmes will have good links with participating universities and be well placed/well networked to benefit from advice and flexibilities HE providers can offer (such as reduced offers) if they have been disadvantaged by this year’s standardisation process.

So perhaps it is not all doom and gloom. Universities and colleges take widening access seriously and there are many dedicated staff in HE who are passionate about ensuring those from under-represented groups have the opportunity to go to university and are not disadvantaged by the system. We need to closely monitor the outcomes this year – but these mechanisms should provide us with some reassurance, and reports over the weekend already show that positive action is being taken by the sector.

One final thought to leave you with, what about having a transfer system for those who may fall through the cracks?

In the mad scramble for places as students digest the grades they have been awarded, adjust their plans, make perhaps less considered decisions as they try and get in anywhere, they may take up places that are not the best fit for them. This always happens to a certain extent in any normal year but could be a bigger issue for 2020. This will require the HE system to be flexible beyond the entry point and allow students to change course or even institution within or at the end of their first year. This is something that is technically possible (and on the policy radar as a way to support flexibility in HE) with credit transfer mechanisms but has never been very popular with the majority of UK universities. But in this unprecedented situation we find ourselves in, let’s have a transfer market to allow young people to at least get in and then prove themselves, and then, with support, move to find a better/or best fit.

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