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Higher education providers must take action to protect their least advantaged offer holders

  • 15 June 2020
  • By Jane Cahill

This blog was kindly contributed by Jane Cahill, Head of English at an inner-city London school. She is a former Debate Mate Programme Director and Teach First ambassador.

Higher education providers are facing unprecedented admissions challenges as a result of exam cancellations. Currently, more advantaged students are six times more likely to attend a highly selective university than their peers and if our university system does not respond effectively to the implications of this pandemic, that ratio could worsen.

A fair admissions system must accurately assess the potential of students whilst maintaining transparency and reducing the barriers faced by the least advantaged students. By taking quick and simple steps to work with schools, universities can avoid the detrimental impacts this pandemic may have on attempts to widen participation.

Assessing student potential

Beyond the school building, there is little understanding of the process used to assess student performance this year. Unhelpfully, the system was quickly described as ‘teacher assessment’ in the national press. More than a quarter of students (27 per cent) believe teachers will give them lower grades than they would otherwise have achieved despite research from Cambridge Assessment showing around 48 per cent of predications are overestimates. If these fears undermine the system, it could buckle as swathes of students demand the right to sit autumn exams.

We can trust this system in the main and direct policy efforts towards supporting disadvantaged students. The Association of School and College Leaders emphasised this summer’s results are centre-assessed grades, not teacher assessed ones – an important distinction with the former involving much higher stakes than the latter. Once an initial prediction is made, the student’s grades taken are out of the hands of teachers by Senior Leadership Teams who will adjust grades in line with previous performance. When submitting grades directly to an exam board, schools must consider their integrity as an assessment centre, building stronger incentives to avoid over-predications.

Centre-assessed grades are subject to external scrutiny in a manner unseen by the predicated grades system. The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation’s statistical moderation tool will consider prior attainment, national expectations of progress and a centre’s likely variability regarding exam results. Schools will want the best outcomes possible, but if the statistical moderation process highlights severe inaccuracies in centre-assessed grades, a school could sustain substantial reputational damage.

Disadvantaged students with competitive offers, however, are likely to lose out. The University and College Union 2016 report showed that high-attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to be under-predicted than their peers. The statistical adjustment of centre-assessed grades will compound this by assuming a school’s results are likely to be similar year-on-year and typically underperforming schools could suffer, as well as any student outliers on roll. Analysis from the Fischer Family Trust datalab has shown that the fluctuation in a centre’s results is harder to predict in the smaller sample sizes, such as an A-Level group. A student who may be the first from their school to truly excel in A-Level Mathematics will have their predications treated very unkindly. This could create considerable problems for universities in judging an offer holder’s potential to succeed on their chosen course.


Universities are awaiting details of the autumn exam series before sharing their policies on students missing offers. This reactive approach may negatively impact disadvantaged students with competitive offers who lack support and clarity in the meantime. These students may have had the least consistent educational experience during this pandemic, and they deserve transparent, holistic decisions on their potential.

Three examples of current online guidance illustrate this problem. The University of Oxford guidance states that applicants missing offers due to ‘extenuating circumstances’ should follow normal procedures and contact their college. What constitutes such a circumstance is unclear – we are in the midst of global health emergency that has impacted everyone, but some more than others. The University College London guidance states that those ‘unhappy with their grades’ can reapply and the University of Cambridge guidance echoes this. This could lead to students relying on autumn exams, creating intense competition for places in 2021 with disadvantaged students cautiously accepting lower grades as the safest option.

Universities should be transparent about the fact that not all students will be equally impacted by the grade allocation process this summer and develop clear approaches to support those that need it.

Reducing Barriers

As has been previously noted on the HEPI blog, grades are a narrow basis for decisions on who will succeed on a course and beyond higher education. The Office for Students called on universities to display ambition and innovation in reducing barriers to access. Extended medical courses at King’s College London, the University of Oxford’s foundation years, and the Bristol Scholars programme reveal the possibilities in this area. This is another moment for such creative thinking.

The first task is to identify and prioritise disadvantaged students. Secondly, initiate contact with schools. If universities wait until results day, schools will struggle to respond. Teachers and students can collect evidence of pupil work to provide should offers be missed. Universities should also consider other assessment methods, such as interviews, to support making these decisions.

These students may not start their university courses at the same place as students in previous cohorts. This doesn’t need to be a barrier to access. With the right kinds of transition programmes in place – from core knowledge to academic writing – these students will make rapid progress and excel on these courses. Asking students to reapply next year, with no additional support, will not solve the underlying problems generated by the inconsistent educational experience due to this pandemic.

An access and participation plan cannot provide a roadmap through a crisis, but the spirit of these commitments give higher education providers a clear mandate to take action. Without this, the diversity of the incoming cohort could be severely damaged, with considerable results for social mobility in this country.

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