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Universities must hold places for students challenging their A-level grades after exams scrapped, ministers urge

Adam Forrest, Kate Devlin
Boris Johnson visits St Joseph's Catholic School in Upminster, 10 August 2020: REUTERS
Boris Johnson visits St Joseph's Catholic School in Upminster, 10 August 2020: REUTERS

Ministers have issued a plea to universities to hold places for students challenging their A-level grades this year amid fears of chaos on results day.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan urged institutions to reserve spaces and warned that “nobody should have to put their future on hold” because of the coronavirus crisis.

In return universities will be allowed a number of extra places for students who meet certain conditions as part of their appeal, she announced.

The government is expected to face a huge backlash from parents and pupils when A-level results are announced on Thursday. Exam boards are also braced for a large number of appeals.

The exams were scrapped because of Covid-19, meaning results will be calculated using teachers’ grades and a statistical model which will see some students’ marks downgraded based on their schools’ past exam performance.

Pupils have been told they can appeal but there are fears a delay will cost them their university place.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, was yesterday forced to apologise to Scottish students after a similar system saw an estimated 125,000 marks downgraded there.

Today, education experts warn any attempt to predict A-level grades is a “near-impossible task”.

Ms Donelan has called on universities to be “flexible” and take into account a range of evidence when admitting students.

She also announced that students whose grades meet their university offer following a successful appeal will be exempt from counting towards the government’s temporary student number controls.

Universities in England have been told they are allowed to recruit just 5 per cent more UK students than their target, to prevent institutions over-recruiting in a bid to make up revenue lost to Covid-19.

Schools were asked to submit the grades they thought students would have received if they had sat the exams. Exam boards have moderated these grades to ensure this year’s results are not significantly higher than previous years and the value of students’ grades are not undermined.

Last month, Ofqual said this summer’s A-level results would have been 12 percentage points better than last year if teacher-assessment grades had not gone through standardisation.

In a letter to vice-chancellors, Ms Donelan said ministers expected 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 urged: “Where you are aware that a student’s grade may change as the result of an appeal, I would encourage you, where possible, to hold their place until they receive the result of that appeal.”

“Nobody should have to put their future on hold because of this virus. That is why I am urging universities to be as flexible as possible in their admissions and to hold places for those whose grades are being appealed,” Ms Donelan said.

The Ucas deadline is 7 September, leaving exam boards less than four weeks to issue the outcomes of appeals.

Boris Johnson has said he understands the “anxiety” about grades.

A spokesperson for the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents exam boards, said it was “working to ensure” appeals are completed before the Ucas deadline.

Meanwhile, education experts claim any attempt to predict A-level grades is a “near-impossible task”.

Experts from University College London (UCL) and Oxford Brookes Business School have found that high-achieving comprehensive school pupils are more likely to be unfairly marked compared to their grammar and private school counterparts using predicted grades.

Based on data from more than 238,000 GCSE performances, the academics discovered that even when removing any opportunity for bias – and running additional checks on gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic stats – they could only predict a quarter of pupils’ best three A-levels correctly.

Among high achievers, the team found 23 per cent of comprehensive pupils were “underpredicted” by two or more grades compared to just 11 per cent of grammar and private pupils.

“This research raises the question of why we use predicted grades at such a crucial part of our education system,” said Professor Lindsey Macmillan from the UCL’s Institute of Education. “This isn’t teachers’ fault – it’s a near-impossible task. Most worryingly there are implications for equity, as pupils in comprehensives are harder to predict.”

This year’s exam results in Scotland have sparked widespread outrage, with allegations of unfair grading and calls for the Scottish government’s education secretary John Swinney to resign.

Ms Sturgeon was forced to apologise over the issue and promised Mr Swinney would set out a plan to rectify the matter at Holyrood on Tuesday.

Students in deprived parts of Scotland were more likely to have their grades downgraded than those in well-off parts of the country – since schools in deprived areas tend to have worse results on average. Pass rates for pupils in the most deprived areas were reduced by 15.2 per cent, compared with 6.9 per cent for pupils from the most affluent backgrounds.

Nicola Sturgeon talks to staff at West Calder High School yesterday (AFP/Getty)
Nicola Sturgeon talks to staff at West Calder High School yesterday (AFP/Getty)

Ms Sturgeon admitted on Monday that the Scottish government had thought “too much about the overall system and not enough about the individual pupil”.

The SNP leader added: “That has meant that too many have lost out on grades that they think they should have had and also that that has happened as a result of not of anything they’ve done but because of a statistical model or an algorithm, and in addition that burden has not fallen equally across our society.”

She added: “Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that. The most immediate challenge is to resolve the grades awarded to pupils this year. We will not expect every student who has been downgraded to appeal.”

Mr Swinney has faced calls to resign from opposition parties, with Scottish Labour set to mount a no-confidence vote against him in Holyrood and the Conservatives saying they will support it.

Boris Johnson visits St Joseph’s school in Upminster (Reuters)
Boris Johnson visits St Joseph’s school in Upminster (Reuters)

Similar to the system used by Scotland’s, England’s exams regulator Ofqual is using a “direct centre level performance approach” in which schools’ previous performance will be used to calculate A-level results.

Downing Street said pupils in England would be able to appeal if they are “unhappy” with the results produced by the standardisation process.

“We would expect that the vast majority of students will receive a calculated grade this summer that enables them to move on to the next stage of their education or training,” said the prime minister’s spokesperson.

Mr Johnson, speaking during a trip to St Joseph’s school in Upminster on Monday, said: “Clearly, because of what has happened this year, there is some anxiety about what grades pupils are going to get.

“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.”

Mike Nicholson, director of recruitment and admissions at the University of Bath, told Times Higher Education magazine that universities could have less wiggle room this year to admit students who see their predicted A-level results downgraded and who miss out on places.

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said young people should not be penalised by inaccurate grades.

“This study proves that algorithms are not a fair alternative to the examination process,” she said.

“Every individual should get the best start in life, whoever they are, whatever their background. These predicted grades will have a lasting consequence on a young person’s choices – that is why it’s crucial the secretary of state steps in to ensure that no one is disadvantaged by the pandemic or by their gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.”

Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary said: “The government was warned weeks ago about the lack of proper process to address the potential unequal impact on children from different backgrounds of this year’s grades 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.”

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