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This year will be the toughest fight for university places in living memory

This year will be the toughest fight for university places in living memory
4 min read

This summer, most politicians have all eyes on the next prime minister. One of the more bizarre policy pledges of the Tory leadership contest was the idea of guaranteeing a place at Oxbridge for anyone with three A*s at A Level.

Liz Truss’s idea would be impossible to implement, but it does communicate the important place A-levels and our elite universities have in the national debate on education.

A-level results day is always big news. For individuals the results define their next few years, and for the system they are an important indicator of how well the school system is performing. 

The A-level grading system this year is likely to further entrench the attainment gap

Fifteen years ago, as schools minister, I made sure I was one of the few ministers in Westminster for the big day.  It being August there wasn’t much else going on and so I spent the day on the media round, safe in the knowledge that the pictures on the next day’s front pages would be of identical twins jumping for joy waving their results.

Behind the reporting there is always the real-life stories. I am just off the phone to my goddaughter who is nervously awaiting whether she has got the grades to match her offer from Oxford. Fingers crossed. From being around other family members in recent years, I know the joy of making the grades but also the crushing disappointment of just missing out.

But at a policy level there is a bigger picture.

UCAS data tell us that the application rate from the poorest parts of the country was at 28.8 per cent, up 10 per cent from 2013.  This is real progress in establishing a better mindset that university is for everyone.  But these poorer students also face stiffer competition with applications generally the highest ever, up from less than 210,000 to over 250,000.

We also saw this week a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that there has been no meaningful improvement in the attainment gap for the last twenty years.  This has a huge impact on future earnings as someone with a degree on average earns twice as much by the age of 40 as someone qualified no further than GCSEs. 

The report also reflected on the impact of Covid: “The Covid-19 pandemic put the education system under enormous strain, with significant learning loss overall and a huge increase in educational inequalities.”

The two years of Covid saw A-level results examined, and therefore regulated, in a different way to normal. This year we go back to a system of grading that is close to norm-referencing, where grade inflation is protected by ensuring that the proportions gaining the different grade types are largely the same. 

In theory, this means that if the Covid impact was distributed equally across all types of students, then the allocation of grades would be pretty similar, regardless of how well the standards were met.  However countless studies have shown that online home study worked a lot better for those with the advantages of a good quiet place to work, good technology at home and educated parents supporting them.

The A-level grading system this year is therefore likely to further entrench the attainment gap.

So how will this all play out in the race for a university place? It will be a scrum. Universities need overseas students to make the books balance, a looming recession cuts off job alternatives and Covid meant some from previous years were put off going until this year.  This will therefore be the toughest admissions round in memory for children of all backgrounds, and they will all need our support. 

For my part, I hope that the new prime minister in September will see the unfairness and the waste of talent that the enduring attainment gap exposes.  Would it then be too much to ask for policies to look afresh at how our school system from early years onwards can finally narrow the attainment gap, and forget the policy gimmicks of the leadership campaign and our unhelpful obsession with A-levels and Oxbridge.


Lord Knight is a Labour peer and former schools minister. 

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