Jess Lomax

The government’s A Level results strategy has failed students from state schools and aided those from fee-paying institutions, worsening the class and racial divides in UK education.

A-level results day is never a calm experience – global pandemic aside, waiting to hear whether you’ve achieved the results you need is incredibly nerve-wracking. It’s no wonder, then, that this year’s students experienced increased anxiety surrounding their results, as many of them haven’t been in school for months and have still had to work to the best of their abilities amidst the coronavirus crisis.

Perhaps students could find some comfort in this situation, if the results they achieved at the end of year 13 were to be accurately based on their mock results and predicted grades. As these are used in university applications, using them to determine results would relieve some of the results day anxiety. However, results this year were instead calculated by a government algorithm, which took into account – among other things – the location and results history of a student’s sixth form or college. 

Needless to say, the government’s A-Level results algorithm contained an inherent class and ethnicity bias. Students from deprived areas would see their final grades marked lower than what they had been predicted, while students from affluent areas would see their grades inflated – not based on merit or attainment – but on the history of results at their school. In addition, the algorithm used to determine the future of British students was found to favour smaller class sizes – again, a factor which would inevitably benefit students at fee-paying independent schools. 

Education secretary Gavin Williamson defended the government’s algorithm, arguing that giving out grades based purely on teachers’ predictions would only result in unprecedented grade inflation. Ironically, what the algorithm did achieve was higher grade inflation for private schools than any other school type – meaning that while students from state schools were unlikely to attain the top grades, As and A*s were more readily given to those who attended fee-paying schools. When one considers that low-performing schools are often concentrated in urban areas with a higher ethnic minority population, this also creates ramifications for high performing ethnic minority students in underfunded state schools. 

The class and ethnicity divide in the British education system is nothing new, and it continues to manifest itself in our institutions – two-thirds of the current cabinet attended private school, despite only 7% of total students attending them, and students from private schools are more likely to obtain top jobs in fields such as politics, the media, and the courts. Similarly, only 10% and 6% of members of the Houses of Parliament and Lords are from an ethnic minority group. These statistics paint a picture of a society suffering from deep-rooted, historical, institutional division. Now, even students from low performing schools who would have otherwise been accepted to top universities and landed themselves top jobs are being denied their future by a failed algorithm. 

A-Level results are not something to take lightly, as they genuinely impact the lives of students. The difference between an A and a B can be the difference between going to a dream university or having to go through clearing, or the difference between landing an apprenticeship or not. While results day does always result in some disappointment – not everyone can achieve the grades required to make the necessary next steps in their education – the sheer number of students who have been marked down purely based on the school they attend is in no way fair or reflective of their ability. 

The results day fiasco is incredibly important to address in regard to the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s year 13s have completed their sixth form education in unprecedented circumstances, dealing with extreme stress and anxiety during an already difficult time. For the government to fail so many of these students at this time is heartbreaking. 

Admittedly, there is no perfect way to deal with exam results in the current global situation. But this is not to say the government should get away with their reckless defence of an algorithm that disproportionately benefits those with the privilege of attending ‘good’ schools in ‘good’ areas. This year’s A-Level cohort have studied through difficult circumstances, and still this government has ultimately failed to support them. 

Students called on the government to do what is right – to trust teachers, to help students, and to allocate final grades based on predicted results and mock exams and the government has agreed to do this. Their exam algorithm has proven itself to be a failure, and this government owes A-Level students the opportunity to achieve the next steps in their life.

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Last Update: April 29, 2024