Tough exam results out soon and the Troubled-levels

 Updated Monday 14th  August 2023.

Lower grades needed to weed out students earlier to lower drop-out rates

This astounding assertion was made by the Sunday Times yesterday with, ‘Tougher A-level grades ‘vital’ as unprepared students quit university’. While Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan in the same issue cites her own experience with,

 “I’m living proof that going straight from school to university isn’t the only way to get on. No one from my family had been to university, so I put my trust in my employer”.

Very touching, but that was in another time after she left school at age sixteen in 1984.  She achieved most of her success later, leading up to a degree in 2010. In modern times she might be expected to fund her own progress via the ‘lifelong learning entitlement’ and still be paying it back.

On some of the expected flexibility in grades for T-levels she also noted,

“The qualifications regulator, Ofqual, has asked awarding organisations to be flexible to reflect the fact T-levels are new, and that pupils and teachers are less familiar with the assessments”

Despite this, the Times insisted, without citing the data source,

“Students whose A-level results were graded by their teachers during the pandemic are dropping out of university in record numbers, with “close to 30 per cent” quitting some degree courses”.

TEFS has yet to track down this data other than older HESA data from 2019/20. However, the Times managed to cite the Student Loans Company’s (SLC) data (up to May 2023) that shows “more than 32,600 students have withdrawn their loans in the last academic year, up from 22,652 at the start of the pandemic”. It is worth noting that the percentage withdrawing is still relatively low and “withdrawal notifications are 2.1% for England, 2.5% for Wales, and 2.0% for Northern Ireland.”

Also, the published SLC data indicates more correctly that for England the figure is up from 22,652 in 2019/20 to 29,472 this year. The overall UK number has risen from 24,761 to over 32,000 at 32,407 (excluding Scotland and other EU applicants).

Nevertheless, this is indeed worrying, but concluding the recent higher grading of students is the primary culprit might be seen as misleading in many eyes. The more likely cause is financial pressures and lack of study time. This might equally manifest itself as poor performance on a degree course and is more likely the underpinning cause. Anyone teaching students knows that there are multiple reasons for students dropping out and their inherent ability is mostly not to blame.

Original post.

With exam results due to emerge next week in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland results were out last week), there is a febrile air of anticipation and preparation for disappointment. In this atmosphere, it is likely that students will be side-lined and as the imperfections of the qualifications are bandied about with some fierce rhetoric. It’s not perfect and we might all take a little time before making judgement to remember the students, their stresses and fears, and their challenges yet to be overcome. Many will find their great expectations are dashed next week but might conclude, “I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

The results for A-levels, BTECs and T-levels will determine the pathway taken by an increasing number of students leaving school. As usual, the media interest is concentrated on the main passport to university, the A-level. But qualifications known as Vocational Technical Qualifications or VTQs are equally important for a large number of students. These include BTECs, Cambridge Nationals, Cambridge Technicals and the new ‘tough kid on the block’, the T Level aiming to replace BTECs.  The Department of Education in England reports, “AS level, A level and T Level results day is on Thursday 17 August”. As afterthought it adds, “Results for VTQs at Level 3 taken alongside or instead of A levels, such as BTECs, will be released to students on or before Thursday 17 August”.  This will be the culmination and a lot of work by students, many of whom were adversely affected by the Covid lockdowns and disrupted teaching and assessments. But the plan is to adjust grades to match more closely those of the pre-covid results in 2019.  The likely outcome is that fewer students will enter university this year despite an increase in number of eighteen-year-olds in the population. It seems new qualifications, changing grade boundaries and financial pressure on university fee income will all conspire to lower the number of students without imposing a formal cap.

Predictions abound.

There are plenty of reports circulating that predict many students will be disappointed by their results. This is probably correct, but the true extent of this will only be revealed next week. The Guardian warns that ‘Nearly 100,000 fewer top A-levels this year in grading plan, research suggests’  (added Monday 14th August 2023). More worrying is the prediction that ‘Disadvantaged students to bear brunt of grade deflation, say experts’. This is indeed very likely and Mark Corver of DataHE provides the most credible predictor of what is likely to happen this year in ‘Grade shock? : dataHE’. He illustrates the wider gap between predicted grades and likely grades to be awarded with a graph shown in Figure 1.

It serves as a warning for future results rounds and lowering student expectations. If the aim is to dissuade students from the A-level route in favour of a technical route to a job, it looks like it will work. Maybe the greater impact on the least advantaged is seen as a ‘bonus’ effect.

How are students and universities likely to respond?

Disappointed students will naturally gravitate towards the clearing process to find alternative courses and universities. But the warning is that fewer places are likely to be available, especially at the higher tariff universities. Some may even reserve their clearing places for international students paying higher fees.  However, behind the scenes, many universities will respond by accepting students with slightly lower grades regardless. They have known of the likelihood of lower grades this year since autumn of 2022 and are surely well prepared. It is hoped that more will adapt to the changing situation and adopt the range of options illustrated in the Sutton Trust’s excellent ‘2023 Contextual Offers Tool for UK Universities’. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The government is of course on hand to offer advice to students.  This emerged from the Department for Education in ‘A Level and T Level results day: What to do if you don’t get the grades you need for your university course’.  It is notable that BTECs and VTQ qualifications other than T-levels are not highlighted despite the greater number of students involved. A not-so-subtle hint perhaps. Their advice is summarised below in Figure 2.

It appears that Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) are high on the list of advice as “An alternative to a traditional 3-year degree, HTQs are job focused qualifications which provide you with the skills employers are looking for” These include Higher National Certificates (HNCs), Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), Certificates of Higher Education (CertHes) and Foundation Degrees.

No doubt some universities will be planning to increase this provision and the ‘social engineering’ direction of travel by the government is very clear.

What about T-levels?

Along with BTECs these will probably remain in the ‘Cinderella’ file in the media for now. Yet grade changes for these will have the same cooling effect and should be a serious concern. On the other hand, lowering the expectations of T-levels from great to adequate might be needed to attract more students. The government might not ask too many questions since they may decide to

“Ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies.”     

Earlier this month OFSTED published its ‘T-level thematic review: final report’ that took a hard look at how T-levels were doing.  Despite the government exhorting the qualities and opportunities provided by the new qualifications, the reality is far from the aspiration and T-levels have got off to a very shaky start.

Last year, TEFS reported on the troubles that T-levels were encountering with ‘T-levels: tales of the unreliable in the twilight zone’ and ‘With exam results looming, the government is promoting T-levels as ‘Social Engineering’.  Earlier this summer  TEFS also reported in ‘Post-16 qualifications taken with a pinch of salt’ that the Education Committee’s review of ‘The future of post-16 qualifications’ was highly critical of the government in promoting T-levels as an exclusive alternative to A-levels. This comes of little surprise and summarises well what TEFS has dubbed  ‘social engineering aimed at the least advantaged students.

With the flexibility of BTECs being replaced by ridged T-levels, one might expect more caution and some protection from the wind. Instead, the latest T-level review, from a survey of staff and students, pulls few punches in a brutal assessment of the problems with T-levels. These gives a flavour of the results,

“We found students on T-level courses who had not been told what to expect and were not well prepared for their qualification. Some believed that they were misled about the components and learning activities”.

In health Sciences,

“Many students told inspectors that they had not been well advised about or adequately prepared for the demands of the course”. 

On teaching they found,

On most T-level courses, curriculum planning and sequencing are limited by a rigid focus on teaching towards learning outcomes. Teachers lack the detailed subject knowledge and confidence to plan a more bespoke curriculum, with better sequencing of topics to develop students’ knowledge and skills in a more logical and contextualised way”.

These are not trivial matters and problems with the experience of staff coping and the entry level requirements all serve to compound the overall negative vibe about T-levels.

Where are the T-levels going?

There has been a slow start and a report from UCAS in February,  ‘Where did the first ever cohort of T Level students’ progress to? offers a hint of things to come. They noted 510 students holding a T-level applied to higher education in 2022. These students were more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds, with 23% from Quintile 1 low participation areas compared to 11% for A level students. However, most were made at least one offer and 80% were accepted onto a course.  However, this is a limited cohort as, “The most common T Level held by applicants was in Education and Childcare, which made up nearly half of applicants”. There are bigger challenges on the horizon across a wider range of subjects and the government is keen to promote the idea of university entry via T-levels. The latest from the Education and Skills Funding Agency in June 2023 lists the universities accepting T-level qualified students with ‘Providers that have confirmed T Levels suitable for entry on one course’

Therin lies the problem. Most list few if only one course and the vast majority are post-92 institutions. The impact will land on the least advantaged students as a result who may see very limited options ahead.

The opportunity landscape is changing fast and the most advantaged will win out more in an unfair competition.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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