Education in crisis?
The onset of the Coronavirus and the subsequent closing of schools was always going to cause a large amount of disruption. With students unable to take exams for grades which decide university places that can determine their vocations in later life, the issue is not a small one. Fairness and compromise were meant to be the watchwords of the grade allocation process, but as Ofqual’s algorithm tasked with delivering this has been deemed not fit for purpose, confusion reigns. Students may now choose between the grades provided by the algorithm, or those predicted by their teacher, whichever is the highest. Many students have yet to have these grades confirmed, plunging both learners and universities into chaos. Universities are now unsure which students to accept, and how many to expect as students scramble to switch places for more prestigious universities as their grades increase.
What went wrong?
As teacher’s predicted grades tend to be optimistic when compared to actual grades attained, the regulatory body Ofqual stepped in to create an algorithm that would act as a dampener and level out the grades to ensure sixth forms, universities, and employers could keep their confidence in the system. It was predicted without the use of the algorithm the number of A* grade A levels would increase from 7.7% to 13.9% this year. However, in practice, the algorithm downgraded nearly 40% of all grades in England, causing an outcry, especially as it was revealed that the algorithm factored in school’s previous performance and penalised students for it. Teachers were also asked to rank students from best to worst, as it was assumed teachers would be better at relative rather than absolute judgements.
Additionally, independent schools won out, seeing large scale year on year grade improvements as the differences in class sizes and the overall high grades given to smaller subjects skewed the algorithm. The exact nature of the algorithm, and certain problems with its accuracy were not revealed until results day, meaning that many schools still don’t quite understand how it arrived at the grades that were handed down. The Royal Statistical Society among others offered to help improve the algorithm prior to use but were declined. The problems generated by this prompted a government U-turn, meaning teacher’s predicted grades could be used in England.
Grade inflation and university places:
The net result of running two concurrent grading schemes where students can opt for the best grade has been rather predictable. The proportion of GSCE students now receiving 7, 8, and 9 – equivalent to A and A* under the old system rose from 21.9% last year, to 27.6% this year. While those receiving 4 or above, equivalent to a C grade rose substantially from 70% to 79%. This has put pressure on sixth form colleges to provide places, at a time when adhering to social distancing remains a priority. Meanwhile A level grades also saw big increases, as the proportion of top grades rose from 25.2% in 2019 to 38.1% this year.
Universities are now attempting to guarantee that they will honour the offers given, however for some this may be deferred until next year. As a result of the U-turn, 15,000 students who were declined places due to their grades can now reapply. The University of Durham has even provided cash and accommodation incentives for students to defer – with some suggesting more privileged students should take a gap year to make way for the disadvantaged.
The cap on medical, dentistry, veterinary and teaching courses have all been lifted, with extra funding provided. The concern now is that some institutions will be oversubscribed, while others will be lacking students – this problem has been exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic, which means that foreign students who pay much higher tuition fees than UK citizens, have dropped in number. Physical limitations such as lab space will be difficult to change at short notice, adding further concerns. Universities are also bracing for potential local lockdowns, as Birmingham is floated as the next COVID hotspot that may incur restrictions.
What does this mean for future students?
Concerns have been voiced that students in the future may receive lower grades for similar work as exams return to normality. They may also face additional difficulties in attaining places as universities accommodate those deferring. Furthermore, there are concerns employers will lose faith in the system, taking relevant work experience and other factors far more into consideration than academic qualifications. And there is also no cast iron guarantee that a similar fiasco could not happen again, as COVID may linger into 2021.
2020 has been a year of uncertainty and confusion in many walks of life – and for students it has been no different as they have ridden a rollercoaster of twists and turns, resulting in many being disappointed or angry. Lessons must be learned from the handling of this, and hopefully the cohort of 2021 does not suffer in the same way.