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Fears Grade Inflation Could See Disadvantaged A Level Students "Fall Through Cracks" In Scramble For Uni Places

5 min read

The scramble for higher education places next week due to anticipated A-level grade inflation could see the most disadvantaged pupils left behind, Labour has warned.

Shadow schools minister Peter Kyle said he is worried teenagers could “fall through the cracks” amid the looming competition if they don’t have people fighting to help them get spots at university and college.

Thousands of pupils will get their A-level results on Tuesday. This year students have been assessed by teachers on a combination of school-set exams, coursework and essays after nationally set tests were scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic and school closures. There is an expectation many more pupils will be awarded the top A* and A grades than the previous years.

Speaking to PoliticsHome, Kyle said: “I think we can predict with some certainty there will be considerable grade inflation next week, but [this is because] we've chosen a fundamentally different way of assessing a young person's ability than in previous times, so it will deliver different results.

“What concerns me is that because this new way of assessing people’s ability will lead to an overall higher number of people reaching the base level line for the next destination and there’s going to be a lot of oversubscribed destinations, whether it be FE or universities.

“There will be a scramble for places and what worries me is, whenever there is a scramble, in education, it is always without exception those who come from tough backgrounds who suffer the most, who miss out.”

He said parents and carers who don’t have a strong grasp of the higher education system might not know how to fight for a place for their child as the dash for places is even more competitive than usual.

“This isn't a criticism, it's just a lot of parents don't understand the system themselves, so don’t know that you should be picking up the phone to the university.

“What worries me is a lot of kids will fall through the cracks,” he said, urging schools to support pupils as much as they can as they try to secure places.  

A Department for Education spokesperson said Kyle's speculation was "unfair on the thousands of students who have worked incredibly hard over what has been a very challenging 18 months due to the pandemic - and who next week will be walking away with high quality qualifications that will take them on to the next stage of their lives."

Kyle is also concerned that grade inflation might also mask the achievements of students who have far exceeded their school’s expectations, but this won’t get the same recognition, he said.

In anticipation of the rush for places, the Department for Education has already adjusted the cap on medicine and dentistry places to allow over 9,000 on courses for the 2021 intake, which is costing the government £10 million.

There are also a significant number of deferred places universities have to cater for in September, after last summer’s exam fiasco.

In 2020 thousands of A-level students received worse results than school estimates due to a controversial algorithm, before a U-turn by Ofqual ruled that pupils could be awarded teachers' predictions instead.

The confusion led to students initially missing out on places in some cases, and then being accepted but asked by university admissions teams to hold off for a year.

Kyle said while there was an acknowledgement of inflation through the new assessment system for this year, it was extremely unlikely schools had deliberately set out to “game the system”.

He said: “I think it will be extremely rare for a school that has bent the system towards what they know will make life easy for students, rather than their doing their best to measure the true ability of young people.”

The results next week should be viewed as a great success for pupils in extremely challenging of circumstances, according to Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, anticipating negative headlines about the value of pupils grades.

He said: “One of the difficulties is the level of speculation that’s going to take our eye away from the success of young people during the pandemic, into a more political debate.

“This is inevitable and is about ‘could more have been done, should more have been done, are these grades to be relied upon and comparative to other years’.  We need to take a breath for a moment on results day and congratulate young people for their success. They’ve been through this pandemic too and they’ve responded to what’s been put in front of them and responded really well.”

On schools attempting to grade their pupils higher than what they may have received in traditional exams, he said: “I think that happens in very few cases. School leadership and schools are genuinely trustworthy. When we get into the weeds of statistics I think a few schools may have done that.”

But he added if any school, whether in the public or independent sector, attempted to do that he said: “I think they will stand out like a sore thumb and it will be very apparent.”

Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT, said: “Teachers have picked up the pieces and done the best they could with what the government and Ofqual had handed to them and made the best possible assessments they could. I hope next week the story is one in which in very difficult and challenging circumstances, students can now move onto the next stage in their careers and lives.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Exams are the best form of assessment but in the absence of those this year, there is no one better placed to judge young people’s abilities than their teachers, who see them day-in-day-out. Teachers have assessed multiple pieces of work, in turn giving students multiple opportunities to show what they know and can do.

“As in previous years, the government has been working closely with universities ahead of results day to ensure as many students as possible can progress if they get the grades they need.”

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