In this year’s A Level results, according to Ofqual’s 2020 interim report, students with a known eligibility for free school meals were awarded 7.1% less A*/As than those not on free school meals. In 2019 the difference was 6.1%, in 2018 6.7%. The percentages are essentially the same for grades C or above. This year only 21.8% of students at comprehensive schools received A*-A grades compared to 48.6% at private schools. The number of students who received top grades at private schools increased by 4.7% this year compared to 2% in comprehensives. It’s clear that students from a low socioeconomic background are consistently awarded lower grades than their wealthier peers, so why is it that when news broke about this year’s A Level results, backlash was greater than ever?
To be absolutely clear, the situation this year reveals nothing new about the realities of social inequality or the education gap in this country. The consequences of this pandemic and Ofqual’s dire response to the seeds of institutional faults already planted and cultivated by a broken, classist education system merely highlight what we already know: poor and working class students in the UK are routinely underestimated and perpetually disadvantaged by an unequal distribution of wealth, resources and comprehensive education. What the situation has done is thrust into broader public consciousness the sheer extent of the unfairness and inequality that is so deeply rooted within the politics of this country. No-one stepped foot into an exam hall to write a single essay. Not one student wrote down their candidate number on an exam script. No examiner sat down to mark a test paper. Yet working class and state comprehensive students disproportionality had their predicted grades robbed of them - grades that were based on the informed judgement of teachers, most of whom would have witnessed and nurtured the talent of these kids for years. They were failed by an already-ineffective system whose leaders have decided to base assessments of academic progress and performance on postcodes and incomes rather than potential and experience.
In Mulberry Sixth Form based in Tower Hamlets, the poorest borough of London, 75% of grades were downgraded, including 100% of Chemistry grades. A friend was predicted an A* and two As having achieved all As in their mock exams, only to receive BCD on results day. In the cohort for one subject at a school in my hometown, multiple people received a U grade. Across Twitter we’ve seen countless examples of devastated students receiving results that were multiple grades below what they had consistently been performing at throughout A Levels, all because of the historic outcomes of their schools (membership of which is often determined by the classist catchment area system).
How does a student get an ungraded result in an exam they never took? What does it say about the state of class and education in the UK when many of the children of this country’s richest families benefit from the consequences of a global pandemic in private schools, whilst those who lucked out in the postcode lottery or whose grades were unjustly deemed to be inflated by a computer algorithm fall further and further behind in state-funded ones?
To add further chaos into the mix, Ofqual have since suspended the criteria for what constitutes a “valid” mock exam grade, going as far as to withdraw details of the appeals process from their website. It has also just been announced that 97% of all GCSE grades released next week (that’s 4.6 million GCSEs) will be determined by a similar algorithm. No submitted teacher-assessed grades will be taken into account for those exams, only teacher rankings. If students were left carelessly uninformed before, their wellbeing and mental health has been all but completely disregarded by now.
Ofqual’s summary report also states that after interviewing teachers ‘almost all [...] told us that they had generally predicted how the students would perform on a “good day”’ and that teachers had been ‘optimistic’. The ridiculousness of the entire examination system is made evident by this defence alone. To imply that the optimism of teachers is a wrongdoing or misjudgment is ludicrous. Of course teachers base their judgement on how they think their students will perform on a good day. What they are able to achieve on a “good day”, funnily enough, represents what they are able to achieve.
Furthermore, the idea that a student might perform worse than their actual capabilities on a “bad day” drives home the point that the education and examination system in the UK entirely fails to account for other uncontrollable, limiting factors almost entirely dictated by class. Do students have a quiet place to revise or are they in a small house with shared rooms? Do students eat a proper breakfast each morning or are they turning up to school to sit their exams hungry every day? Do all schools have complete, up-to-date editions of textbooks provided to students free of charge? Were students actually taught the entire course before they sat their exams, or did teachers miss content because they were limited by the constraints of increasing class sizes and a lack of additional support? Do students discuss course content with their parents at the dinner table each night or are they going to bed without a hot meal while their parents work long night shifts just to survive?
That so many students woke up on Thursday to find that an algorithm had given them grades below their offers for a university or apprenticeship place is heartbreaking. The media focus has been on Oxbridge, but the fact of the matter is that teenagers across the country who applied to universities of all kinds - just to get out of towns where there are minimal opportunities and low life chances - are now stuck. Of course there are appeals and resits, but the government did not consult universities before they announced their U-turn the night before results were published. At this point, universities had already received student grades and assigned spaces (which have been massively restricted due to the health and safety risks posed by COVID-19). What use is an appeal to someone who has already been informed by the university that there is no place for them to study there this year? What use is a resit to students who have already lost their place and who will have been out of the classroom for at least seven months by the time they step foot in an exam hall again?
I went to my school’s sixth form which had only been open for two years when I started Year 12. No-one had even applied to Oxbridge, let alone gotten in. I was incredibly lucky to have had the teachers that I did, but for a state comprehensive school we were naturally limited by the constraints of funding, resources, and university application experience; not to mention internal issues including teachers leaving halfway through the year or months before our exams. The school was by no means underperforming to the same extent that some of the most disadvantaged schools in the UK do, but we struggled. If I had applied to Cambridge this year rather than in 2017, it’s likely that I would have missed my offer despite my predicted grades at the time simply due to average annual performance.
Regardless of whether an appeal would have been successful (considering that’s not guaranteed for any student), I cannot even begin to imagine the level of stress that has been forced upon Year 13 students who have been left completely in the dark. It’s not simply a matter of taking a gap year, deferring and/or waiting to reapply. We’ve just entered a recession and jobs are facing unprecedented numbers of applications. Next year there will be even more students than ever applying for university spaces. For low socioeconomic students, it’s difficult to see what to do next.
What is clear is that the education gap in the UK has been, as expected, both highlighted and proliferated by COVID-19. Existing classism has become further pronounced and advanced by the Conservative government's incompetence at dealing with the fallout from this global pandemic. By mistrusting teachers and putting our faith in computer algorithms (shaped by structures of classism and bias), we fail our poorest students and further embed inequality in our education system and beyond.
Universities now have a responsibility to ensure that all state school students’ offers are honoured. To deny students this opportunity and to use the “COVID excuse” completely fails to recognise that especially wealthy institutions (namely the likes of Oxbridge) are not only already behind in access-related matters, but that they also have the money to provide academics with offices in colleges and outsource private accommodation. It is not a big ask to suggest that there should be an investment in the futures of disadvantaged students who enrich and greatly contribute to university life at every level - in every sense of the phrase it is a social responsibility to prioritise the admission of disadvantaged students.
If you have been left in the dark after results day and are seeking support, Simpson Millar (a public law and education firm) are covering legal costs for the appeals of students who have been downgraded by 2 grades or more; you should contact Dan Rosenberg as soon as possible at 0800 260 5010. Masha Novikova and Sara Saloo, two Cambridge students, have also created a live database to help students resitting their exams find current undergraduates who are offering tutoring and resources for free. You can also call Samaritans at 116 123 for free if this situation has been especially stressful and anxiety-inducing for you. And of course please talk to your friends, family and teachers; you are not alone in this and you will always deserve better. There are lots of people fighting for you (including us) and the injustice driven by Ofqual’s decision will not pass without a challenge.
Credit image: PA
Written by Ella Nevill