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Widening attainment gap shows we need an education system that is fair to pupils from all backgrounds

4 min read

Ministers need to outline plans for national exams from next year onwards. Confidence needs to be restored in a system that many believe is irreparably broken.

This year’s A-level results have in many ways confirmed our worst fears: the pandemic has exacerbated educational inequalities outside and inside the school gates.

The most eyebrow-raising statistic reveals a gaping divide between private and state schools in the proportions of pupils gaining A or A* grades. Seven in ten privately educated pupils (70.1 per cent) secured the two highest grades compared with around 40 per cent of state school pupils. Never mind talk of rising grades, that’s the biggest gap by far we’ve witnessed for decades. It raises a red flag for social mobility prospects for a generation of students.

The results, based on teacher assessed grades, will raise questions about whether standards have been applied consistently across individual schools. Teachers doubtless have done their best to assess students as fairly as possible. But variation in standards from school to school will be inevitable.

These outcomes may be driven by the differential learning losses suffered during the pandemic. Our research has found that children from the richest homes were relatively unscathed from Covid-induced school closures. The poorest children on the other hand, with limited study space and internet connectivity, were the least likely to benefit from online lessons. The pandemic has exposed the gross divides outside the classroom that do so much to shape children’s education progress.

How do you halt the inflation in exam grades now that the genie has been let out of the bottle?

As this week’s frenzy over results abates, several important education policy debates come to the fore. The government in Westminster faces a number of key tests if it serious about creating a fair education system serving for pupils from all backgrounds, one that can help to ‘level up’ society. (We will also see governments in the four nations adopt increasingly different education policies.)

First, Ministers need to outline plans for national exams from next year onwards. Confidence needs to be restored in a system that many believe is irreparably broken. How do you halt the inflation in exam grades now that the genie has been let out of the bottle? Yet how can it be fair to students taking exams in 2022 if their A-grades are taken away?

The pandemic has exposed one of the biggest dilemmas over exams policy. Do you keep the proportion of A-grades the same each year, or do you allow the proportion of A-grades to vary according to changing performance from one year to the next? Perhaps this is the time to move to grading A-levels in a numerical format rather than the current letters? My view is that we also need to establish a national school leaving certificate that all pupils are expected to pass.

Second, it is increasingly clear that the government’s much anticipated education recovery plan will need to target support to help the most disadvantaged pupils who have suffered the largest learning losses during the pandemic.

Proposals to extend the school day have been mooted in Whitehall spending review discussions. Meanwhile, I’ve argued for greater accountability on how pupil premium funds are deployed in schools for poorer pupils. The problem with the flagship pupil premium policy is that different schools have deployed the money in a variety of ways, some effective, some not.

Third, the university admissions market has been turned on its head. Before the pandemic, universities were chasing extra students; now school leavers are competing over degree places, amid declining job prospects.

Universities will need to ensure that when assessing student applicants they take into consideration the extra learning loss suffered during the pandemic by poorer pupils. They will have a huge job providing extra academic and pastoral support for many students. Disadvantaged students were already more likely to drop out of university before Covid.

Fourth, we desperately need to strengthen the vocational offering to the half of young people who don’t go to university. For all the talk about apprenticeships there are not enough quality vocational options available for school leavers. This is one of the country’s major weaknesses.  

What’s for sure is that our education recovery efforts have only just begun. We all want an education system that is fair to all pupils irrespective of what school they attend or home they come from.

Unless the government acts decisively and quickly, social mobility will be put back years.


Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter.

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