Since this article was written the government have decided to honour teacher’s grades for A Levels and GCSES. While this is a welcome U-turn, and a hopeful sign of change in government, problems with access and diversity at universities will still remain. Hopefully this will mark the start of long term change.
The statistics and stories emerging from this year’s results day fiasco are farcical. Teachers who motivated students with myths of meritocracy had to explain why grades were arbitrarily downgraded. Universities who publicly champion access, outreach, and diversity failed to protect prospective students they claim to desire. Students who have already lost out on months of school have suddenly lost their university places too.
It’s so blatantly unfair it feels like a sick joke, but nothing is surprising about the government’s handling of A Levels. It would be wrong to dismiss them as another example of bumbling Boris clumsily coping with COVID. They are a culmination of the continued negligence toward young people demonstrated not just by the current Tory government, but by the entire political establishment. They are an example of the classism deeply rooted in our education system.
The figures speak for themselves. The number of private school students getting As and A*s rose by 4.7%, more than double any type of state school. While Ofqual has claimed the algorithm ‘contains no bias, either in favour or against, a particular centre type’, their standardisation model’s reliance on class size benefits fee-paying schools dramatically. Almost 40% of grades were downgraded, but students from less affluent socio-economic backgrounds have been disproportionately affected. The 2020 A Level results clearly further entrench preexisting inequalities in higher education: 30% of places at the top 15 UK universities are held by the privately educated, despite 93% of British children being state-educated. The algorithm is likely to disproportionately penalise people of colour too, as they tend to be underpredicted by teachers more frequently than their white counterparts, and now face a secondary hit of downgrading by Ofqual. This is a disaster for diversity, since black students still only make up around 4% of Russell Group universities attendees, compared to the 8% UK average.
The Johnson administration’s failures extend to their entire A-Levels approach, not just the inadequacies of the algorithm. Ofqual should have established a proficient appeals system before results day. Instead, they have suspended the application process without explanation, throwing students into further turmoil. Gavin Williamson claims it would be a ‘‘shocking injustice’ if students had to pay for appeals, but only made this statement after backlash and has conveniently ignored that for years countless students have missed out on remarks due to extortionate fees. He also fails to consider that private schools will have more resources and pressure to appeal than state schools even if the process is free of charge. Boris Johnson’s consolation to students that ‘they can resit this autumn’ if they feel ‘an injustice has been done’ reeks of a similar ignorance. What about students who cannot afford a gap year? What about disadvantaged students from low performing schools? The pandemic has not affected all young people equally. Poor students who have had to struggle with inadequate online learning (highly dependent on regular access to a computer and comfortable work environment) must now contend with exams that will benefit the privileged primarily.
Sorting out exams this year was never going to be easy. However, as the mistakes and mishaps of this government multiply, it is evident systemic issues permeate the education system and politicians’ attitudes toward young people. By describing this year’s grades as ‘good’, ‘robust’ and ‘dependable for employers’, Boris has strategically centred the conversation on corporate interests rather than the individuals whose aspirations have been upended, a tactic ingrained in party policy. In the last recession, young workers suffered the most significant wage cuts, and youth service budgets went down 69%. I do not trust that the current government will be kinder to young people hurtling towards the impending recession we face, a particularly pressing issue for those whose job prospects have been irreversibly damaged by their A Level results. As we have seen with so many problems this country faces (austerity, climate change, housing prices, Brexit, just to name a few), young people – predominantly working-class young people – have been considered last. This is hardly surprising if you take a look at the composition of Johnson’s cabinet – two-thirds are privately educated and around 50% attended Oxbridge.
There is some hope for A-Level students who have been unfairly downgraded, but the damage is already done. While a few Oxford colleges and other universities have agreed to honour predicted grades, these remain in the minority. Furthermore, rejected disadvantaged students who gain their places back will still have to reckon with collateral damage. The unnecessary stress of having to beg for your university place via letter or telephone, the risk of amplified imposter syndrome upon arrival, and the lingering feeling that the current system is rigged against you could cause future problems.
Even worse, the onus of outreach programmes may rest on these students in the coming years despite universities not adequately supporting them upon their admission. Other members of the student body can remain disengaged from access issues, whilst those who fought the hardest to obtain their place are expected to also work the hardest to continue to diversify higher education. This is incredibly taxing for those involved. For example, at Oxford outreach initiatives students are encouraged to downplay differences between colleges and sell an image of equality, despite the clear discrepancies in college provisions that have been brought into sharp clarity this last week (consider the quick response of colleges like Wadham compared to the silence of others in light of the algorithm’s effects). This problem is far bigger than Oxbridge and countless other Russell Group universities escape proper accountability for their treatment of disadvantaged students. A few weeks ago the Durham Commission on Respect, Values and Behaviour highlighted a ‘sense of entitlement’ that has negatively impacted 30% of student respondents.
Fixing the mess of this Results Day was crucial, but it is also far too little and far too late. Regarding education, and the future of young people in general, it is hard, if not dangerously naive, to stay positive considering this government’s track record.