Don‘t diss this year’s A-level results: predicted grades have many virtues

Concerns over the rising number of top marks thanks to teacher-assessed grades should not obscure the limitations of the UK’s exam system, says Nick Hillman

August 10, 2021
Celebrating exam results
Source: iStock

For most people, August is a time for holidays, as best summed up by the French term les grandes vacances. But for teenagers and their teachers, it is often a time of stress.

Those leaving school or college are on tenterhooks, waiting to discover if they have the grades they need for the next step in their lives. This is true even in this extraordinary year, when teachers rather than exam boards have decided the grades, and when the grades will be higher than usual.

Because both my parents were teachers, I have known from my very earliest years how stressful it is for teachers too. And I vividly recall how, during my own time as a teacher 25 years ago, one of my A-level pupils had an accident on the way to his exam. He was unable to prove his knowledge to the examiners that year – or ever, as the syllabus was about to change. It was devastating. But the story is also a reminder that people get second chances. When I next saw him, my former pupil was on TV in a band that went on to have five top 40 hits.

The stresses on pupils and teachers are greater than they would be if we had a less hierarchical university system or if there were more “parity of esteem” between full honours degrees and other routes, such as Level 4 and Level 5 courses. In the system we have, it is not just a matter of passing; three A grades give you all sorts of options that three Cs do not.

Indeed, perhaps the single greatest oddity of our education system is that it values hyper-selection at 18 almost as much as it opposes any selection at all 11 or 14. While a few lone voices have argued for less selectivity, academics pushing to reduce “mismatches” want to make the selection process even more finely tuned and precise.

One reason this is odd is that our assessment processes already cannot bear the weight we put upon them.

Ofqual claims, for example, that exam results in regular years are reliable because nearly all of them are accurate to one grade either way. But this means a B at A level might reflect A-grade work or C-grade work. And as Dennis Sherwood recently noted, grades “marked at, or very close to, any grade boundary correlate very highly with the toss of a coin…in all subjects. At all grade boundaries”.

This year’s teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) raise separate challenges. In one sense, they may be more accurate. Teachers can know the true potential of their pupils best whereas, in normal exam situations, quite a few candidates have a bad day and underperform. That is why Mark Corver of DataHE believes Ucas predictions are generally the best “single statistic of potential to underpin good matching of university offers”. But this year’s TAGs will mean lots of high grades, which the system will struggle to absorb.

At the uber-selective end (think Oxbridge and medicine), places will be even more hotly contested than usual. After a decade in which students have held most of the cards, market power is flowing perceptibly back towards institutions. There could be a rash of appeals as people try to beat the system.

Yet despite the difficulties faced by this year’s applicants, when it comes to university entry, they are better placed than some of their predecessors thanks to the past removal of student number caps. My first job in education policy was to calculate the huge number of people who had applied to higher education but could not find a place. One BBC headline from 2010 reads: “209,000 university hopefuls miss out on degree places”.

This week, in contrast, the overwhelming majority of higher education applicants will achieve what they need to study where they want. With their results in their hands, their minds will move on to the next stage of their lives. Once enrolled, they are likely to succeed: the recent Hepi/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey shows that most students do not regret their decisions about what and where to study, even in the midst of a pandemic.

This is positive, although it does create a headache for policymakers who want fewer people to attend higher education. In charts showing young people’s higher education participation over time, 2021 is likely to show up as a step increase to the highest level ever. This will benefit under-represented groups.

As with past increases, people will respond by asking whether “more means worse”. But growth will be hard to unwind: it is one thing to oppose 50 per cent of young people attending higher education when under half go; it is another to oppose it when over half go.

In coming days and weeks, lots of profound questions about the state of our education system will be raised. The one most likely to gain immediate traction is: if close to half of all A-level entries score A* or A, how should the system be changed to make grades a more effective differentiator?

However, it seems likely that this limited question will quickly bleed into much bigger issues about the breadth and depth of the curriculum in the past two years of compulsory education, how we test pupils on what they have learnt and how we record their achievements.

It is no coincidence that the UPP Foundation, The Times and ResPublica have all responded to the pandemic by launching wide-ranging commissions on education. It may seem hard to believe, but the disruption of the past couple of years may be just the beginning of the Covid-related upheavals to education.

Nick Hillman is the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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