Yesterday was the culmination of two years of worry and angst endured by students in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Their A-level, BTEC, and T-level results were posted. Many had not sat a formal external examination before due to the pandemic lockdowns. For most it was a cathartic moment as they achieved enough to move onto university or promised jobs. For others there was disappointment and the prospect of further worry. Many universities are closing clearing early despite a record number of 53,510 entering the system today. This means that a record number might not be accepted onto a university course and the daily statistics from UCAS will be watched carefully to mid-October. Those left over will not be satisfied with what is on offer. There are stories of late and lost results circulating and this appears to have affected BTECs the most. Pearson, who administer the qualification, have apologised (BTEC delays: Exam board Pearson apologies to students waiting for results – BBC News) but have not released the numbers involved. With clearing places closing fast, it seems those affected will find themselves out of the ‘clearing’ and back in the woods.
The government, through their regulator Ofqual, imposed a return to pre-pandemic standards by expecting the distribution of grades to fall somewhere between that of 2019 and the high teacher assessed grades (TAGs) of 2021. It is fair to say that this has been achieved and the grades surely tumbled downward this year.
The share of A and A* grades dropped sharoly from 44.3% to 35.9% as it headed to parity with the pre-pandemic results in 2019 of 25.2% next year. The same downward shift occurred across all grades and today Schools Week provided a useful overview of how the grade distribution has shifted downward to the right in Figure 1.
Various sources of data
There are numerous sources of exam result data covering the UK that must be waded through to get to the underlying issues. Observers are pouring over what data there is so far and various interpretations have been made. The two main sources are Ofqual itself with its ‘Guide to AS and A level results in England, summer 2022’ and associated ‘Infographic: A level results 2022’ and ‘Ofqual – Analytics’ alongside UCAS and its ‘Statistical releases – daily Clearing analysis 2022’ . There are also the parallel results and infographic in the government’s ‘Guide to the 2022 Level 3 qualification results for VTQs in England’. The Joint Council for Qualifications provides a convenient breakdown of results at subject level across the UK. Also of great interest are the analyses of Mark Corver from ‘DataHE’ through his Twitter postings @markcorver.
Scottish Highers results are at Attainment statistics 2022 – SQA. Those for Wales at Qualifications Wales / Summer 2022 overview and results and in Northern Ireland the Department of Education has simply posted a statement ‘Minister congratulates A and AS level students following a return to examinations’.
As an aside, the government of Ireland has delayed it’s leaving certificate results day to September for a second year running due to a shortage of examiners and the number affected by COVID and sitting later examinations this summer.
Algorithms, shifting grade boundaries and unreliable grades
There are many things that emerge from the results and the scrutiny of the system over the last three years. The onset of the pandemic meant that we looked under the bonnet of the machine and saw the rickety the mechanism below. We found that the grades handed out were only reliable to +/- one grade and Ofqual asked the exam boards to adjust the grade boundaries to get to a planned distribution of grades. These issues and the implications were covered by TEFS earlier this week in ‘Exam results: Missing the mark and shifting the target’.
The big experiment: Where did the fall in grades land hardest?
The first thing obvious in the data was that the drop in grades this year did not all land equally hard across the so-called ‘centre types’. Table 1 shows how this was distributed.
Of the mainstream centres, the biggest drops in A and A* grades happened for students from independent schools and FE colleges (in red). But for most school types, the drop in grades was not very great. In the case of independent schools, the 12.4% drop in high grades is the result of an inadvertent ‘experiment’ to test the hypothesis that they cheat or game the system. But they still top the table in high grades. Last year, TEFS outlined the issue in ‘Are independent schools cheating or ‘gaming the system’?’ and reached some disturbing conclusions.
Again, this year they saw the highest proportion of high grades. But, the reversion to examinations also acted to uncover what happened, even though a different cohort of students was involved. All things being equal, it might be assumed that support throughout the pandemic and through the examinations would not cause such a disparity in well funded independent schools. Yet it did. However, a similar 12.7% drop in high grades for those in further education colleges was also seen. This may have been due to another unrelated cause, as suggested by Jake Anders and Lindsey Macmillan of UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) in ‘Turbulence on the glide path: A-level results 2022’. They suggest “it seems plausible that students in FE colleges were, in contrast to those at independent schools, particularly badly affected by the disruption wrought by COVID-19.” The learning loss for the less advantaged FE cohort during the pandemic was feeding through with greater impact for those students this year.
Eagle-eyed observers will see that schools classified as ‘other’ also saw an alarming drop of high grades of 23.3%. The numbers are not cited at this point, but in the past these represented a very small proportion of candidates. Ofqual’s Summer 2020 results analysis – GCSE, AS and A level’ defined “Other’ centres as: colleges of higher education, university departments, tutorial colleges, language schools, special schools, pupil referral units (PRU), HM Young Offender Institutions, HM Prisons and training centres”. Private candidates were added to these. The total number of candidates in 2020 was noted as 715,806 with only 1.059% in the ‘other’ category. Interestingly, ‘other’ is missing as a category in Ofqual’s detailed analysis, ‘Summer 2020 results analysis – GCSE, AS and A level’ covering what happened across centres in 2020.
The impact on equality: the omens from Scotland are not good
The effect of this year’s results on equality of access to university has yet to be revealed across the whole of the UK. But the signs coming from Scotland are not good. The release by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) of the results for Highers and Advanced Highers showed a similar drop in high grades to that of the rest of the UK. But the SQA have been very efficient in releasing immediately its ‘Equalities monitoring report 2022’. Despite the Scottish Government’s targets from March this year in the ’Scottish Attainment Challenge – 2022 to 2023 – 2025 to 2026: fairer Scotland duty assessment’, it seems they have got off to a very bad start. Using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) for defined quintile areas, they observed that the attainment gap between the most and least deprived quintiles had widened from 7.8% in 2021 to 15% in 2022. Should a similar effect emerge in the rest of the UK, there will be growing disquiet.
There is a growing movement in the media and elsewhere that recruitment of international students is squeezing out home UK students. Even the telegraph has fallen for this suggesting international student numbers should be capped at 10%; mainly for protect bright teenagers from middle class families. They complain that ‘One fifth of Russell Group university places awarded to overseas pupils’.
Added Sunday 21st August 2021. Today the times led with an alarming report that ‘Universities push for ‘vital’ tuition fee rise’ and “UK students must pay closer to £24,000 a year or lose their places to foreigners, argue bosses”. The article is based on the premise that universities must take higher fee paying overseas students to make ends meet. However, the university bosses interviewed did not advocate a rise to £24,000 as implied. Instead, one said that “the UK fee should rise to between £12,000 and £13,000” to keep pace with inflation. This makes some sense. But the contraction in numbers of home students combined with an increase in overseas students is bound to cause anger.
Certainly there are a considerable number scattered around the whole sector in the UK as evident in the latest data from ‘International student statistics at UK universities (thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk)’ and the ‘International student recruitment data’ from Universities UK.
These complaints are effectively countered by Times Higher Education with ‘Foreign students ‘don’t take domestic places’. There is no sign yet that this is having a negative effect. But, they added the ominous caveat ‘yet’. Certainly, the current fees for home students are not going to suffice as inflation hits double figures. On the contrary, international students are more likely to be paying to cross subsidise the education of home students.
There is a feeling in Scotland that students from the rest of the UK are squeezing out Scottish home students. Particularly involving those arriving from England. However, this is certainly not the case. The Scottish government caps the number of students each year and doesn’t charge fees. Students from England and indeed elsewhere bring money with them. The reduced fees in Northern Ireland also mean that numbers of local students are also strictly capped.
Bringing in student number controls
This has been debated over the years as the numbers expanded with a concomitant increase in government loans. The capping of numbers in Scotland and Northern Ireland hovers in the background.
In 2020, there was considerable ‘Anger from devolved administrations over limits on student numbers’. In May the then Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, wanted to cap each institution to their 2019/20 totals plus 6.5% and limit the number going elsewhere in the UK. By August it had been withdrawn.
But this issue has not gone away. Reducing grades through adjusting grade boundaries and the application of another grade shifting ‘algorithm’ this year, and into next year, will have the same effect. Also replacing BTECs with T-Levels will have a similar downward effect. Not content with that alone, in February, the Department for Education launched a consultation on introducing a system of “student number controls” for higher education institutions in England. Expect university student numbers to fall as they are diverted into technical and skills training.
There is one thing that is certain. The students have not changed. But circumstances have changed and they have simply reacted to the changes outside of their control. Out of this year’s examination cohort, there will be many successful people emerge to drive the UK forward. Some will have their direction changed through clearing and some will live to fight another day. The hope of my generation is that they all remember what happened to them and change things for the better. I tried and for me time is running out. But I’m certain they will take up the challenge.
The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.