The Blatant Classism of A-Level Results Day

As students across the UK receive their A-Level results this year, it has become clear that the government’s algorithm is working against those who are already disadvantaged.

Last week, Scottish students received their Highers and Advanced Highers grades. Today it is A-Levels. The government has had a week to ponder the fallout of the Scottish system which has been condemned for its classist algorithm. After initially supporting the exam regulatory board in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and her Education minister John Swinney have U-turned, saying that the estimated grades from teachers would stand firm instead of the mass downgrading witnessed on 4 August. Today, the other UK nations have demonstrated how they too have exercised their right to downgrade grades en masse in a classist manner.

In the 36 hours prior to the publication of results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that there would be a so-called ‘Triple Lock’ system in place for students. The system means that if students are unhappy with their calculated grade then they can either appeal and have their mock exams validated or can sit exams in the autumn. This “ensures that the achievements of young people are recognised”, as Mr Williamson stated in his address.

Northern Ireland and England have adopted the system; however, Wales has opted out as they have implemented a system whereby the benchmark for a student’s A-Level grade is their AS results from the previous year. This means that the outcome for Welsh students is more popular than the Scottish outcome the previous week. There are a record proportion of students achieving A*-A with 98.6% of students attaining A*-E. However, there are still flaws and classist undertones in the Welsh system with 48.1% of pupils on free school meals having their results downgraded compared to 45.3% of those who do not qualify.

In England, the attainment of grades was based upon the ranking of pupils within the school and how their school has performed in previous years. 36% of entries in England had a lower grade than teachers predicted with 3% dropping down two grades. In some cases, students have had grades lowered from a pass to a fail. The proportion of students receiving A* grades has increased to 9%, up from 7.8% in 2019. Likewise, A*-C grades have also increased to 78.4% up by 2.6% from the previous year. For private schools there was a 4.7% increase in students achieving A grades and above compared to 2.0% for comprehensive schools. Schools in the North East and North West received the lowest increase in A grades achieved, while London and the South West received the largest increase.

Gavin Williamson has ruled out a U-Turn scenario like we have seen in Scotland by saying that “it would be unfair on the classes of 2019 and 2021 to do so”. However, when talking to LBC’s Nick Ferrari he stated, “I would’ve liked to have had the AS-Level system in place.” This was removed by his predecessor, Michael Gove.

In Northern Ireland, the story is broadly similar with 37% of students having their estimated grades lowered, while 5.3% were raised. In Northern Ireland, final A-Level grades were based upon a combination of AS results and resit data as well as predicted grades from teachers. Under this system, 58% of results matched teachers’ estimated grades. CCEA, the exam regulatory body for Northern Ireland, said that teachers were overconfident with lower grades such as C-E but were often spot on when it came to higher grades. However, in some schools such as Bangor Academy, 63.4% of their pupils had been downgraded. Similarly, at Holy Cross College and Strabane, teachers have had their integrity questioned by CCEA who in some cases have lowered from As to Cs and Cs to Es.

As a student who came from Strabane in Northern Ireland – one of the poorest regions in the country – the grades I left school with would have been 1-2 grades lower based off of the school I went to, rather than my academic achievements. This is disgraceful and shows a blatant disregard for the integrity of the teachers who are unable to accurately determine their own students. It too reveals an extreme and dangerous classism that does not want anyone from a lower background to do well. While either possibility is damning on each education board, they will now be swamped with appeal applications to rectify the damage they have done.

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As students across the UK receive their A-Level results this year, it has become clear that the government’s algorithm is working against those who are already disadvantaged.