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Are the media irresponsible in their coverage of people with poor A-Levels but top degrees?

  • 24 April 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

Last week, I was copied in to more tweets from other people than I have ever been before.

It started when I was quoted in an article in The Times that was headlined ‘University grades: firsts for quarter of students with lowest A levels’ and which discussed the number of students with relatively low A-Level scores who leave higher education with a First. Then, Sian Griffiths, a journalist at the Sunday Times, tweeted a link to the article that included my Twitter handle.

This led to numerous tweets aimed at the media which claimed the article was unfair. Lots of people tweeted to say they had done relatively poorly in their A-levels but then gone on to great academic success. These tweets were, in turn liked by huge numbers of other people.

The stories were heartwarming and positive anecdotes. They were genuinely lovely to read. But, while I am as opposed as seemingly everyone else to the idea that people with less than 3Ds should be barred from higher education, I still think that the general reaction to the original story was as problematic as it was helpful to the sector.

Consider these four points.

  1. In higher education, we usually avoid using anecdote as hard evidence because we don’t like it when others, especially politicians and civil servants, do it about our own sector. Moreover, in academic work such random anecdotes would not be deemed sufficient to change the course of the debate. Yet when we talk about our own sector and our own lives, we can fall in to the trap of thinking they must be typical and that others should build their own understanding upon them.
  2. One reason why we need to engage with the story in The Times is that it is actually true that degree results correlate to some degree with performance at school / college. Even the important new ESRC-funded article by academics at Durham University, which strongly calls for more extensive contextualised admission policies, makes this abundantly clear: ‘while applicants entering medium-tariff universities with BBB at A-level have a 68 percent chance of achieving a first or upper second class degree, the corresponding figure for those entering with DDD at A-level is significantly lower at 30 percent.’ The point is made clearly in the chart from their report below. So, while the anecdotes are far from wrong at an individual level, they are clearly not representative of entrants as a whole.
  3. The Times‘s article itself included both sides of the issue. It not only included the figures on people with poor results achieving Firsts, but it also made it clear – not least in a quote from me – that there are good reasons why some people with enormous potential score quite low in their school exams but then thrive in higher education.
  4. People on both sides of the conversation seem to assume that A-Levels are accurate: neither those who question the likelihood of so many people deserving to jump from relatively poor A-Level results to a top degree result nor those who point out they have done exactly that have questioned whether the A-Level results in question were accurate. But, as HEPI has shown elsewhere, such exam results are often very poor reflections of ability, due to issues in how they are graded – see 1 school exam grade in 4 is wrong. Does this matter?

If we react to balanced stories with a gossamer-thin skin, we are likely to lose the debate and we will have less time for telling more positive stories. Particular anger was directed towards the title of the piece but, as the education commentator Laura McInerney recently explained in a brilliant Twitter thread, it is easy to read far too much in to a headline.

All these sorts of issues are likely to come up at the annual HEPI Policy Briefing Day, which is taking place tomorrow at London Metropolitan University, especially in our final session of the day on how universities are portrayed in the media. See you there.

1 comment

  1. Is there any evidence that degree ‘surprises’ (a student with DDD at A level and a first; or with AAA and a third) correlate with the choice of A level subjects? My hunch is that it might. Those who take A level Maths, Further Maths and Physics are awarded A level grades that are much more reliable that those who take English Language, English Literature and History. That suggests that A level grades are likely to be a better predictor of HE performance in the sciences than in the humanities. If that is the case, then the population of those with DDD and a first will contain more humanities students than scientists. Does it?

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