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"Unconscious Bias" Could Have Widened A-Level Attainment Gap Between Black and White Pupils

4 min read

A widening gap between top A-level grades for Black students and those of their white peers could be because of unconscious bias during this year's teacher assessed system, an education policy expert has told PoliticsHome.

Sam Freedman, a former policy adviser to Michael Gove who was education secretary from 2010-2014, said today’s results were “depressing” and expected to see a similar trend for GCSE results when they are released on Thursday.

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) data released today showed gaps indicating lower outcomes for Black African, Black Caribbean, Mixed White and Black Caribbean compared to their White peers in getting an A grade or above. Figures showed the gap had widened between 2020 and 2021 by between 1.85 and 2.97 percentage points.

“They aren’t huge numbers but they are significant," explained Freedman, who is also a senior fellow at the Institute for Government.

"We’re talking one and a half percentage point growth in the gap between those groups and when you think it’s taken us about a decade to close the gaps by that much, and to see that undone in the space of one year is pretty depressing.

“You can see that for Black pupils the gap has grown.”

He suggested the discrepancy could be attributed to teacher assessment tending to be better for wealthier and white children, and girls, “because there’s unconscious stereotype biases”.

“This isn’t conscious, it’s not teachers deliberately marking down, it’s just everyone has these unconscious biases that come out when it’s down to the individual teachers to make decisions, which aren’t there when you’re blind marking," he continued. 

“It could also be that those students had less opportunity to study effectively at home. Both factors could be involved.”

In a report released by Ofqual today, it set out that they found no evidence that teachers' judgements were systemitcally biased in favour of one group of students or another, and there had been "general stability2 in the differences in outcomes for students with different protected characteristics compared to previous years. There ha also been increases in outcomes for many groups. 

Ofqual also found that between White British and Black Other and Mixed White there was no notable change from 2020 to 2021 in terms of the probability of getting an A grade or above.

Children on free school meals had worse outcomes compared to those pupils who are not on free school meals. This widened by 1.03 percentage points.

The report from Ofqual said there was a "notable" change in attainment between 2019-to-2021 for those in very high levels of deprivation relative to their respective peers – a gap which widened by 1.39 percentage points.

Labour said that the Conservatives’ last minute decision to cancel in person exams opened the door to this widening of the attainment gap.

Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said: “The increase in A grades is 50% higher among private schools, while Black students, students on free school meals and in areas of high deprivation are being increasingly out-performed by their more advantaged peers.

“Labour has set out a comprehensive Children’s Recovery Plan with opportunities for all young people to learn, play and develop post-pandemic. The Conservatives’ need to match Labour’s ambition for our children’s learning and their futures.”

The Department for Education said today there had been a record rate of students from disadvantaged backgrounds starting university courses.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Receiving results is always a huge milestone in people’s lives and after a difficult year, every student should be incredibly proud of what they have achieved. The results are testament to young people’s hard work and resilience alongside the commitment and expertise of their teachers.”

Ofqual stated that there are some small changes in the gaps between the average results of some groups of students which may reflect the impact of the pandemic on learning.

Their report said: "It’s likely, however, that these changes would have been greater had we had not given teachers the flexibility to assess students only on the content they had taught."

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “Differences in results for black students, those on free school meals and those living in areas of high deprivation compared to white and more advantaged students are longstanding. Given the uneven impact of the pandemic we might expect to see much larger gaps in results this year. However, the fact that we have not, suggests that the grading arrangements we have put in place have lessened the differential impact of the pandemic.”

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