Gabriel Roberts is a secondary school teacher in London. He is the author of HEPI Report 141, The Humanities in Modern Britain: Challenges and Opportunities.
A-Level results will be published next week, on 18 August, and there may a few surprises in store.
The first thing to note is that grades will be lower than in 2020 or 2021. This is because Ofqual plans to deflate gradesto bring them back towards pre-pandemic levels (Ofqual’s remit covers England only, but similar plans are in places for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). Ofqual plans to do this in two steps, one this year and one next. This means that grades will be higher than in a normal year but lower than in 2020 or 2021.
It is unclear exactly how this will work. One interpretation of the information provided by Ofqual is that examiners of each subject for each exam board will begin by setting grade boundaries halfway between where they were in 2019 and 2021 and then adjust them up or down depending on the quality of work submitted in that subject. If this is right, then Ofqual have a range in mind for the proportion of students achieving each grade in each subject, even if they do not have a specific quota.
There are different ways of taking an average of the 2019 and 2021 grades, but we could see the number of entries being marked A or A* fall from 44.8 per cent (the 2021 figure) to around 35.2 per cent (halfway to the 2019 figure of 25.5 per cent). That is an awful lot of grades that could have been an A or an A* if grade boundaries had been left where they were coming out as a B or below—around 73,000, in fact, based on Ofqual’s figures for the number of A Level entries this year.
What is not clear (although read on for more on this) is whether predicted grades and university offers have been deflated at the same rate as A-Level grades will be. As Clare Marchant pointed out in a HEPI blog in June, universities have been aware of the plans for A-Level grades in making offers, but offers could still end up being high relative to the grades that students receive. If that happens, then more applicants than normal could miss their firm choice offer. This is not what UCAS expects, however; instead, they predict ‘more applicants being confirmed at their firm choice provider than in a typical year’ because of universities being more discriminating than usual in making offers.
The second thing to note is the number of places. Many universities accepted unusually high numbers of applicants in 2020 and 2021, and, as a result, there are likely to be fewer places this year for more competitive courses. According to data published by UCAS last month, the overall offer rate this year is 66.4 per cent compared to 72.0 per cent in 2019, suggesting that the number of places is down and / or universities are being more careful in making offers. A further factor here is inflation, which has been eroding the value of UK students’ tuition fees (which remain capped at £9,250, despite the Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) rising by 8.2 per cent in the twelve months to June). Universities have therefore had an additional incentive to accept overseas applicants, whose fees are uncapped, and this may have made it harder for UK applicants to secure the offers they wanted from institutions that are unwilling to expand at undergraduate level.
Something not to note is the number of people applying to university. Although the population of 18-year-olds is increasing, more international applicants are applying to UK universities and university continues to be a popular choice for UK 18-year-olds, the number of people applying to university is only very slightly higher this year than last. This is due in part to a fall in the number of older UK applicants, which is itself partly a result of a greater proportion of school and college leavers applying to university during the pandemic rather than waiting to do so later. Nevertheless, although things are stable this year, it is significant that the number of applicants has not reduced even though the number of places probably has.
All this means that university applications are more competitive this year than last.
But results day may be unusual for other reasons, too. If predicted grades have not been deflated at the same rate that A-Level grades will be, then they may have been a less accurate guide to the quality of applicants this year than in a normal year. Universities may have taken account of this, either by paying less attention than to predicted grades or by conducting more interviews and admissions tests, but there is still the possibility of some applicants falling a long way short of their predictions. Likewise, given that there are (marginally) more applicants this year chasing fewer places at competitive universities, it is possible that more applicants than usual will find a place only through clearing.
There is also the question of state and independent schools. The grades gap might be expected to widen here, but things are not quite so simple. On the one hand, since independent school pupils have probably had their education disrupted less on average in the last two years than state school pupils, they might be expected to pull ahead, especially as the allowances that exam boards have made to mitigate the effects of the pandemic have been made for all pupils, regardless of circumstances. On the other hand, if it is true (as had been suggested) that independent schools gamed the system of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) more thoroughly, on average, than state schools last year, then a larger than average movement back towards 2019 grades might be predicted for them. Either way, familiar questions are likely to be asked about the fairness of Britain’s secondary education system. Forecasting is a tricky business. Some of the predictions here may be correct and some may not. The truth will come out on results day and when the data is crunched in the days that follow. What is clear, however, is that the COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to have a profound effect on the UK education sector.