By Tom Middlehurst
, ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist
Over the weekend I felt like I was in somewhat of a twilight zone. In anticipation of this week’s A level and equivalent results, several papers ran stories on what we can expect. Many of these suggested that results are likely to be ‘unexpectedly’ lower than in 2021, and that therefore, more students might miss out on their conditional university offers.
This is just nonsense. If anything, this year’s results will be the most expected and most predictable in a long time, at least at a national level. Since the policy decision was made
back in the autumn, we have known what the overall grading profile will look like: a (not exact) midpoint between 2019 and 2021. Regardless of your view on whether that’s fair or not, we can’t accuse the DfE or Ofqual of not trailing this for a while. This week’s results will not be ‘unexpected’ as suggested by some headlines.
So too, the universities were well aware of the approach to grading before they made their offers (including the early offer courses). UCAS data shows that they have been sensibly cautious in their offer-making, offering slightly fewer offers per place, in anticipation that more students than in a normal exam year will meet their conditions. There is thus no reason to think that any more students than usual will miss their conditions this week.
It is true that university places have been more competitive this year, but this is largely down to the fact that there are more 18 year-olds in the country, that more 18 year-olds are applying for university (including those from disadvantaged backgrounds), and international undergraduates look ever more lucrative until the Government raises the cap on domestic fees. None of this has anything to do with grading or exams and it’s wrong to conflate the two.
Or, to put it another way, had the DfE and Ofqual decided to stick with 2021 grading, the number of places available would not have changed. Students who deferred from 2021 had already been given unconditional places so weren’t in direct competition with this year’s cohort.
The rise in students applying for university is, I think, a good thing. I remember Estelle Morris once explaining that when New Labour put the arbitrary target of 50% of 18 year-olds applying for university, they knew the economy wouldn’t support that number of graduates. However, they couldn’t increase the number of disadvantaged students applying unless they raised the number overall. It’s depressing to hear one of the leadership candidates suggest that degrees that don’t lead to high earnings may be unfunded. I do think we need a serious debate about the value of degrees, and whether the current system is sustainable, but I think we need a broader view of what we mean by value and need to ensure that any change does not undermine social mobility and social justice.
An exceptional year
There will be those who’ll argue later this week we’re seeing the greatest drop in results in decades if you compare this year’s results to last year. There are others who will argue we’ve seen the greatest rise in results if you compare this year’s results to the last exam year. Either comparison is unhelpful. This is an exceptional year.
Although the pandemic affected students differently, all students have been treated equally in this year’s marking and grading. Their grade relative to their peers is ultimately determined by the work they produced two months ago - not by Government policy; not by their school or college’s historical data; not by an algorithm. Their scripts were marked by experienced examiners who used the normal mark scheme and approached it neither more harshly nor more generously.
Of course, the pandemic did not affect all students equally. But it would have been impossible – if not dangerous and unhelpful – to design a system that took into account individual circumstances. How do you quantify the impact of a student who themselves was off for five days due to Covid with a student whose sociology teacher was off for ten days during the same period?
Indeed, in a normal exam year, we don’t expect the exam system to mitigate for deep-rooted inequalities. If we wanted to, we could, in a heartbeat, end educational inequality by lowering the grade boundaries for disadvantaged students. But we don’t do this, and for good reason; to carry public confidence, exam results have got to mean something and that something has to be your performance on the day. The exam system should hold a mirror up to our education, sometimes a painful picture, not distort the reality.
This year was never going to be perfect. No solution was ideal but we’re probably in the least-bad position possible.
With that in mind, let’s forget the negative headlines, the scaremongering, and the undermining of this year’s results. Let’s instead celebrate the amazing achievements of young people and the teachers who taught them. It’s been an unprecedentedly tough two years for them all; the best thing we can say to them now is “well done, well deserved”.
is ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist.