Successful A-level appeals ‘will not count towards numbers cap’

Announcement comes as anxiety grows in England over grade calculations that have replaced exams 

August 11, 2020
Crystal ball

Students whose A-level grades are improved after an appeal may be exempted from undergraduate number caps that have been placed on English universities because of the pandemic, the government has said.

In a letter to universities, Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, asked institutions to be flexible in their admissions decisions given the “unprecedented” situation brought about by the Covid-19 outbreak.

A-level results, which are due to be published on Thursday, have this year been based on calculated grades due to the inability to hold tests, and England’s exam regulator last week announced that schools would be able to appeal results. It follows controversy in Scotland, where tens of thousands of predicted grades were downgraded due to the calculation process.

Ms Donelan said in her letter that the government anticipated that the appeals process would “include in particular some students who are highly talented in schools or colleges that have not in the past had strong results”.

“We expect the vast majority of grades to be accurate, but it is essential that we have this safety net for young people who may otherwise be held back from moving on to their chosen route.

“That is why I have decided to exempt certain students going through this process from the student number control. This will apply to students whose grades are subject to an appeal, where that appeal is successful, the student’s grades are increased, and they then meet conditions of the student’s offer.”

The intervention came as a new study showed that predicting A-level results was such a “near-impossible task” that even using sophisticated statistical analyses can only marginally improve on teachers’ forecasts.

The research by academics at the UCL Institute of Education and Oxford Brookes Business School used statistical and machine-learning techniques to analyse more than 200,000 pupils’ GCSE results to see if they could accurately predict later A-level grades.

However, even after accounting for differences of gender, ethnicity and social background, the analysis could only predict one in four of pupils’ best three A-level grades accurately, only slightly better than the one in five achieved by teachers.

Previous research has suggested that the inability to correctly predict many A-level grades at the higher end is a bigger disadvantage to those from poorer backgrounds.

The UCL/Oxford Brookes study appears to back this up, finding that high-achieving comprehensive school pupils were more likely to receive under-predicted grades compared to their grammar and private school counterparts.

Among high achievers, the team found 23 per cent of comprehensive school pupils were under-predicted by two or more grades compared to just 11 per cent of grammar and private school pupils.

One of the paper’s authors, Lindsey Macmillan, director of UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, said the research “raises the question of why we use predicted grades at such a crucial part of our education system.

“This isn’t teachers’ fault – it’s a near-impossible task. Most worryingly, there are implications for equity, as pupils in comprehensives are harder to predict.”

Meanwhile, a new survey on views on admissions, by the University and College Union and the National Education Opportunities Network (Neon) found 60 per cent of university, school and college leaders think the current system was not fit for purpose.

The survey, which received 130 responses – almost half of which were from university vice-chancellors − and was carried out before the pandemic, also found that 70 per cent of leaders did not feel predicted grades were accurate.

More than four in five (82.5 per cent) of the leaders said they would support further exploration of a post-qualification admissions system (PQA). 

The debate about whether to switch to such a system has raged for years due to the inaccuracy of grade predictions that form the basis for most university applications. The latest consultation on changing the system in England, launched by the Office for Students this year, has been paused due to the pandemic.

Neon director Graeme Atherton, who co-authored a report on the survey, said it showed there was “cross-sector support for reform to the university admission system”.

“It is essential that we now develop a system that unites schools, colleges and universities and places the needs of students first. The report presents evidence showing educational leaders support a new system that enables rather than prevents students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education.”

 simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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