How Did The Government Get A-Levels So Wrong?

This year’s exam results have exposed a hive of glass ceilings within the education system.

The rest of the UK have followed in Scotland’s shambolic handling of this year‘s A level results. On Thursday, around 40% of grades were lowered from teachers’ assessments in England, with Wales not fairing much better. Particularly affected were the results of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and low-performing schools, who were somehow denied their chance to prove themselves academically and overcome class and economic barriers. 

Without exams, it is near impossible to guess how any individual may have performed. Yet almost 37% of pupils had a grade lowered by one, and a further 3% had them lowered twice. Many students who were predicted and working at stellar grades found themselves underestimated in an arbitrary judgement of their abilities. 

Whilst ministers and education executives have insisted that previous evidence and teacher assessments were influential in their grading, it is evident that some pupils have been particularly let down. The fact that pupils were predicted to fail or perform badly based on their area and economic background is frankly disturbing and illustrates how entrenched inequality in the education system is. These preconceived notions of ability based on a pupil’s background prevent them from accessing the same level of education already at a secondary level and are certainly exacerbated in higher education.

Unfortunately, these cases were not isolated. Thousands of students attending state schools this year have found themselves in an unfathomable position as their private school equivalents receive more top grades than ever before. They watched on as students who had lower grade predictions, but came from more privileged backgrounds than them picked up the top grades. More than double the number of students from private school backgrounds achieved an A or above, with only 22% achieved by state school students.

This led to many pupils missing their university offer grades and leaving them with no direction and no clear path to appealing or improving their grades. The added confusion surrounding results beforehand and since is particularly detrimental to students lacking the resources and information to rectify the situation – for example, first-generation university applicants. 

In addition, A level results day saw the gap between private and state school performance increase further. The amount of A‘s and A*s achieved by independent schools has risen by almost 5%, the highest out of all school types. With the standards of education in private and state schools becoming increasingly polarised, many are calling for thorough review and reform of the UK’s education system at all levels. After all, education is a formative experience that can affect an individual’s economic and social mobility and an especially important opportunity for intelligent and hard-working pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to find support and success. This year, they have been denied this, and the injustice amplifies the need for change at the earliest stages.

Much like in Scotland, the algorithm for deciding grades this year favours those from wealthier backgrounds in private schools, whether intentional or not. Despite the government claiming an absence of systemic bias, the discrepancies in grading between different areas clearly highlight that inequality remains a shameful feature of our education system. The methodology has been dubbed a ‘postcode lottery’ by some protesters in Scotland, with many students from England and Wales planning protests in response. 

The complicated model has also resulted in some illogical results, such as this case where a pupil was awarded an A in further mathematics but was downgraded to a C in the less advanced mathematics A level. It is evident that pupils have been widely generalised based on factors beyond their control. Just like in the case of marking exams, each grade needs to be considered on an individual level. Only then will the system be just and devoid of an agenda. 

In response to criticism, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson asserted that an ‘incredibly robust’ appeals system would be in place for pupils and schools dissatisfied with their grades in England. An Autumn exam series has also been assured to allow for resits if requested. However, this is no quick fix for the many unrepresented low-income students in the UK. The prominent exam board AQA charges prices well beyond what students from the most deprived areas and schools, who have disproportionately had grades lowered, can afford. For example, to resit their mathematics A level, it would cost £116.45, a rather shocking amount to many unaware of the costs. 

With around 30% of young people in poverty, and many schools being unable or unwilling to pay, it will simply be impossible for these students to achieve the grades they deserve. In addition, pupils who have missed all their offers may be forced into a gap year, a luxury that not everyone can afford. Whilst the Department of Education and the Conservative government certainly have a difficult issue on their hands, it is certainly hard for them to relate to the majority of those affected. With two-thirds of Boris’ cabinet having attended private schools, it is discernable that they lack a true understanding of the situation present. Without adequate representation of MPs from disadvantaged backgrounds, it has been and continues to be, a struggle to get underprivileged voices heard. 

It has been less than 200 years since the concept of universal education was brought to the UK. Private schools remain a symbol of elitism in education as the poorest state schools miss out on funding. The gap between poor and rich students achieving university places has been widening and has undoubtedly been highlighted by the current lockdown and pandemic, which saw low-income families struggling to balance work and home-schooling. 

Whilst grants and scholarships aim to mitigate the circumstances of some pupils, these aren’t accessible to all, especially those whose poor-quality education has resulted in underwhelming achievement far from their potential. MPs and education officials must address the glaring inequality that plagues the system and disables so many from success. 

As a result of this fiasco, criticism has emerged from not only pupils, but also a myriad of MPs, journalist, and educational figures. Social media has seen an outcry from equalities bodies and charities working in the education system. Consequently, theEducation Secretary has since said appeals this year will be free, but many argue it is too late for this with some universities already withdrawing offers and leaving certain pupils directionless through no fault of their own. Although Scotland has reversed their grading decisions, and the Senedd has recalled the Education Committee to address these concerns, England remains adamant that the grading system was fair, and has done little to assure teachers and families affected.

In current times, universities are making increased efforts to diversify their cohorts and staff. Accessibility has become a monumental issue of focus for historically elitist universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, with particular events being held for outreach purposes, such as Get In Cambridge. Notably, media executive Sonita Alleyne was made Master of Jesus College, Cambridge last year, being simultaneously the first woman and black person to do so. 

This year, an Oxford college has been widely praised for upholding their commitment to offer holders, promising to allow entry to all, which has greatly helped those such as FSM pupils who otherwise may have been left behind. However, it is essential we look beyond Oxbridge and those who have missed their offers and advocate fair treatment for all.

General university entry remains more challenging for BAME pupils who have been historically overlooked and undermined by an education system that favours the wealthy, white, elite. Students previously achieving Bs and Cs, with the hopes of gaining a degree have returned grades that judge them unworthy of even attending university. Whilst UCAS have relayed the fact that a record 18.8% of pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have been accepted into university, they remain far behind their peers in terms of representation, and there is certainly more work to be done to achieve an ideal level playing field. 

Although it is true that some private school pupils have been unfairly treated by the system, and many state school pupils have achieved top grades and university places, this year’s results day has exposed the structural flaws in our education system which preserve inequality and demonstrates a dire need for it to change. 

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This year’s exam results have exposed a hive of glass ceilings within the education system.