The co-author of our latest report, Erica Holt-White, discusses the impact of the pandemic on this year’s exam season.

Young people finishing school and college this year have faced major disruption for two consecutive years, including periods of school closures, enforced remote learning and periods of self-isolation.  

From the beginning of this academic year, it became obvious that it would be hugely challenging for examinations to resume in their pre-pandemic form, and that this year’s cohort of university applicants would once again be facing disruption. 

As we approach a second extraordinary results day our new research briefing looks at the impact these challenges have had on assessments and university access this year, exploring the views of teachers and this year’s university applicants.  

This year’s grading system 

Changes were clearly required to avoid the chaos of last year’s grading system, when a combination of teacher ranking and an algorithm were initially used to calculate students’ grades. This year, pupils’ grades will instead be determined by teachers, with some external checks, but without adjustment by algorithm. Teachers were also able to only assess on content they were able to teach their classes. But while this approach does account for schools covering varying amounts of the curriculum, it does not take into account individual level learning loss, an issue which is most likely to impact disadvantaged pupils who were less able to access home learning.  

Our new research includes a survey of over 3,000 teachers, carried out via Teacher Tapp, which has found significant variation in how assessments were carried out this year. There were big differences in the intensity of A Level assessment undertaken by students, while the most common number of ‘mini-assessments’ per subject reported by teachers was three or four (38%), 18% reported two or fewer, and 18% more than six. 

There was also variation in the type of assessments being taken. 96% of teachers report at least one assessment under exam conditions was used for calculating A Level grades, 63% reported using mock exams, 80% reported using past papers, and 35% reported assessments written by teachers themselves. Some schools used home (13%) or previous classroom work (17%).  

Concerningly, there were also differences between types of schools, with independent schools more likely than state schools to use a wider variety of assessments, including giving prior access to questions and ‘open book’ assessments. Some parents may also have tried to influence assessments, 23% of teachers at private schools said parents had approached or pressured them about their child grades this year, compared to 17% at state schools with affluent intakes, and just 11% at the least affluent.  

Students’ perspective 

Our research also looked at the views of this year’s university applicants, through Youthsight surveys of over 400 applicants. This group were generally more positive than applicants were in 2020, with fewer anticipating that their grades will be harmed, and more agreeing that the system is as ‘fair’ or ‘more fair’ than a typical year. However, 22% still thought their grades would be lower than they would have been in a more normal year.   

Additionally, almost half (49%) of state school applicants said they didn’t feel confident that they would have the right information and support if they needed to appeal their grades, which requires going through a system which has also changed this year. Applicants from independent schools were less likely to have this concern (43%). 

Impacts on admissions 

We are again approaching an unusual results day, with many students concerned about their results. Recent data has shown that there has been a fall in the university offer rate this year (particularly amongst high tariff institutions), the first time a fall has been seen in 9 years following a record high in 2020. Having a higher-than-normal intake last year has meant that many institutions are nearing capacity (related to staffing as well as campus space). And whilst the effect of this year’s grading on admissions is still unknown, the increase in applications, alongside our polling showing a large proportion of students feeling confident that they will have done as or better than they expected, suggests there will once again be pressure on university places. 

As the unequal impact that learning loss has had on young people from disadvantaged background has not been fully reflected in the assessment process, we would strongly encourage universities to give additional consideration to widening participation applicants who have narrowly missed their offer grades this year. Universities should ensure that admissions and clearing teams are working closely with those in their institution’s widening participation team, so that contextual data and access and participation targets are being taken into account in decision making.  

While we know it may not be an option for all universities at this stage, the recent news that free school meal (FSM) eligibility for this year’s applicants will be made accessible to universities via UCAS is greatly welcome, and where possible we would encourage institutions to make use of this data when making their final decisions on places. Recent Sutton Trust research has highlighted FSM as the best available marker to identify socio-economically disadvantaged students, and access to this data could make a real difference on a difficult results day. A student’s GCSE results could also be used as context, which could help to give a sense of a student’s ability before the impacts of the pandemic on learning. 

For schools, it is more important than ever to give support to students to guide them through results day, where entering the appeals or the clearing process may be more likely this year. Students from less advantaged families, who may for example be the first in their family to attend university, may need particular support if they cannot access it from their family or wider networks.  

Moving forward 

Without exams, this year’s assessments were never going to be perfect, and it is likely that we will again see students left unhappy with their results. What is vital now is that universities and schools do all they can to ensure that these students, especially those from the poorest backgrounds, do not unfairly lose out because of it. Action taken now can ensure disadvantaged young people heading into higher education can thrive, both at university and beyond. 


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