This year has seen exams take place again for the first time since 2019, a move back towards the pre-pandemic norm for schools and colleges across the country. But the cohort of young people taking exams this year have faced years of disruption to their educations, which has continued even when they’ve been back in the classroom. Mitigations for this year’s exams have been put in place, and a range of catch-up support has been offered in schools across the country to help support young people.
But have these efforts gone far enough to take into account pandemic related learning loss? And what will this all mean for university admissions?
This research brief by Erica Holt-White and Dr Rebecca Montacute explores the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic, taking into account the views of young people applying to university this year, and teachers with knowledge of this year’s exam cohorts.
A fifth of university applicants missed more than 20 days of school or college this academic year.
The proportion of teachers who think the attainment gap will widen at their school.
The proportion of working-class applicants worried about getting into their first-choice university.
Ongoing disruption and catch up support
- Disruption from the pandemic is ongoing, over a third (34%) of students who applied for university this year have missed 11 or more days of school or college over the last academic year for covid related reasons, with 21% missing more than 20 days.
- The majority (74%) of applicants in state schools were offered at least one type of catch up support over the last year, with over half (56%) taking at least one up.
- 62% of this year’s applicants felt they had fallen behind their studies compared to where they would have been without the disruption of the pandemic. This figure was higher for students in state (64%) than in private schools (51%).
Exam mitigations and preparations
- Almost half (45%) of teachers involved with exams this year do not think the mitigations in place have gone far enough to account for pandemic related disruption. This figure was higher for those working at state schools (46%) than in independent schools (38%).
- Most A level teachers (80%) were able to cover the vast majority, 90% or more, of the content released in advanced information topics for most subjects. No teachers reported that they covered less than half of the content. A similar proportion (75%) had been able to cover 90% or more of the full syllabus.
- Most A level students applying to university felt the advanced information was helpful (76%). But only 52% thought the arrangements for exams this year had fairly taken into account the impact of the pandemic on students’ learning.
- Most teachers (57%) agreed with Ofqual’s approach to grade boundaries this year, but a sizeable minority (29%) felt the approach was too strict. This proportion was higher in state (30%) than in private schools (23%).
Concerns for the future
- 64% of applicants said they were worried about their grades, 8 percentage points higher than said the same last year. Just over 1 in 4 (27%) are very worried this year.
- Students from working class backgrounds were 8 percentage points more likely to be concerned about their grades, at 70%, compared to 62% of those from middle class backgrounds.
- 60% of applicants were worried about getting a place at their first choice university. 71% of working class applicants expressed concern about getting a place, 13 percentage points more than those from middle class backgrounds, at 58%.
- Applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who have narrowly missed their offer grades should be given additional consideration in admissions and hiring decisions. Universities, employers, colleges and other training providers should consider that young people taking exams this year, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have faced considerable disruption over the last few years, and that the exam system has not taken into account individual learning loss within the pandemic.
- Schools, colleges, training providers and universities should put adequate support in place for results day. Results day this year is likely to be particularly challenging, with many young people potentially needing to adjust plans if they have not met their offers. Schools, colleges, training providers and universities should work together to ensure adequate support is in place for young people having to make quick decisions on their next steps.
- Universities should identify key gaps in learning at an early stage in the first term, and provide support if necessary. Students going onto higher education this year will still require additional help and support. Plans should be put in place to support students develop in key areas necessary to succeed in their course.
- Universities should provide additional wellbeing supports for the incoming cohort. We are still learning the extent of the impacts on young people, and they are likely to have additional need of support for their wellbeing and mental health as they transition to life in higher education.
- Government should fund additional catch-up support for school and college students. A renewed catch-up plan, with a scale of funding at a level to meet the need caused by the crisis should be put in place by government for future year groups, including those in 16-19 education. This should include extending the pupil premium to students in post-16 education.
- Ofqual should review the mitigations put in place this year and consider adapting them for 2023, taking into account the views of teachers and young people who have been through the system this year. Next year’s exam students will have had longer back in school and college, but will still have faced considerable disruption due to the pandemic which should be taken into account in the exam process next year. Ofqual should carefully review this year’s approach and use learnings to inform any mitigations in place next year, including re-examining current plans to reduce grade inflation to pre-pandemic levels next year.