James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust, examines this year’s grading system in the context of social mobility.
Yesterday’s results were always going to be far from perfect. But the scale of the problems that are emerging – and the groups of pupils that have been particularly affected – are deeply concerning.
From day one at the Trust we were worried that high-attaining poorer students would be under predicted; we were worried that state schools on an upward trajectory in terms of their grades would be disadvantaged in the adjustment process; and we were worried that the appeals process would favour the better off.
We were reassured when it looked, from initial analysis, like the overall gap between poorer students and the rest had not widened. We also understood why, even in extraordinary circumstances, simply accepting the submitted grades would have seen a huge rise in the top marks, impacting credibility, comparability and likely done little for social mobility, as the bar would have been set higher for everyone. And it seemed there might be more university places for home students, which would make it more of a ‘buyer’s market’ for young people who narrowly missed out on their grades, meaning they could still get great outcomes in difficult circumstances.
But it has become clear that there are specific groups of pupils and schools that seem to have been affected by this year’s grading process more than others. From what we are hearing from teachers, universities and students, these are the very groups that have already faced disadvantage, not just in recent months through lockdown, but in the education system as a whole. It is outliers, talented young people at historically low performing schools, that seem to have suffered disproportionately.
This is not just a personal tragedy for the individuals affected, but for social mobility too. Social mobility in this country is a story of outliers, those bucking the trend of their neighbourhood or their circumstances. Young people being artificially held back by their surroundings in this way cuts to the bone of fairness and opportunity in this country.
There is no denying that Ofqual and the Department for Education were set an exceptionally difficult challenge. It would have been virtually impossible to create a system this year which didn’t result in instances of individual unfairness. But we need to make sure that all young people – particularly those from disadvantaged groups – leave education with the qualifications that reflect their hard work and achievements.
We are where we are. What is of the upmost importance in the immediate term is that universities recognise the uniqueness of the circumstances and give as much leeway as possible to those who have missed their grades, taking their full circumstances into context. Universities on their own cannot be expected to fix this situation, but they should do anything they can.
It is vital that the upgraded appeals process being finalised by Ofqual is open and accessible to all, with fees waived, and provides a robust process that can address the individual cases of unfairness we are seeing. Including mock results will help some, but given the inconsistency in how mock exams are administered, and questions around what counts as ‘valid’, it is far from a cure-all. The new appeals process should also take into account other indicators provided by schools, where this is practical, given the timescales and resources involved.
However, some universities have already announced that students who successfully appeal will not be able to take up places this year and will have to wait for 2021. We understand the challenges caused for universities by the last minute changes introduced this week, but this is an emergency situation and it is vital that we all do what we can to accommodate those who missed out yesterday, including keeping places open for as long as possible. This may need action by the regulator, with the option to loosen number controls on the table.
Unfortunately, it seems inevitable that there will be some who miss out on their hoped for university course over the coming weeks as a result of the calculated grades system. It is vital that there is a concerted policy effort to look after the interests of this group, including work programmes or internship schemes, January university starts, or ringfenced places in next year’s admissions process. It is in all of our interests that the Covid generation are not left behind.
We will also need a detailed review of the data to establish how and why certain groups appear to have lost out this year. For transparency and accountability, particularly to those who have lost out, this is essential — even if its results may come as cold comfort to those affected today.
And to young people – especially the 5,000 who have been on Sutton Trust programmes last year and who are now waiting for their places – we know this year has been incredibly difficult and frustrating for you, particularly as you haven’t had the chance to take the exams you’ve all worked so hard for.
There are some resources that can help, including the National Careers Service Exams Helpline, as well as the support of your schools, and we wish you all the very best. Regardless of where you end up, we are proud to have you as part of our family of 40,000 exceptionally talented and resilient young people.