No sacred cows

Spare a thought for next year’s A-level students

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

Three years ago I was contacted by an official at the Department for Education to see if I was interested in becoming a non-executive director of Ofqual, the exams regulator. There have been times since when I’ve regretted turning down that offer, but this week was not one of them. Ofqual was given the unenviable task of awarding A-level and GCSE grades to students in England who, thanks to the lockdown, had not sat their exams; and it was inevitably criticised by those children and their parents who felt they should have done better, not to mention various enemies of the government who treated Ofqual as a proxy for Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary. The regulator’s humiliation was complete when Williamson announced on Monday that if Ofqual had awarded a student a lower grade in a subject than that predicted by their teacher, they could give themselves the higher mark instead.

Almost everyone took the side of the disappointed children, but I’m not convinced they were so hard done by. After all, the percentage of children awarded A*/A by Ofqual was higher this year than the percentage who achieved A*/A last year. True, the attainment gap between privately educated and state–educated pupils increased year-on-year, but then private schools were generally more conscientious about providing remote lessons during lockdown, so that seems reasonable. And since the effect of Williamson’s retreat has been to increase that attainment gap, not reduce it, that suggests Ofqual had treated the predictions of private school teachers with more scepticism than those of state-school teachers.


Whatever harm the government may have prevented by its U-turn will have been more than offset by the harm it has done to next year’s cohort of A-level students, of which my daughter is one. Good universities make many more offers than they have places because they know that not all the applicants will meet those offers. Cambridge, for instance, made 4,500 offers for 3,450 places this year, while Oxford made about 3,900 offers for 3,287 places. Had Williamson stuck with Ofqual’s grades, roughly the same number of children would have been disappointed as in previous years, but now that he’s allowed children to choose between the Ofqual grade and their predicted grade, a far larger number of applicants to good universities will have met their conditional offers. Most universities will honour those offers, which will mean accepting many more students than in a typical year. But they won’t have the space or resources to accommodate them all, so they’ll encourage some to defer until 2021. That will mean fewer places available at good universities next year, when my daughter will be applying.

You might think I’m being pessimistic. After all, won’t the expected decline in foreign students applying this year, thanks to Covid, mean that universities have room to squeeze in all the additional British students? Afraid not. That’s partly because universities have already factored that in, lowering their entry requirements in order to admit more British applicants; and partly because the decline in the number of foreign students isn’t as great as anticipated. And next year they will be back to full strength. Indeed, there may be more than usual because some who would have applied this year if it weren’t for travel restrictions will apply in 2021 instead. In effect, my daughter will be facing a double whammy. Fewer places available for British students overall, and what places there are already part-filled by this year’s overspill.

Knowing this, I couldn’t help feeling angry when seeing all those supposedly compassionate Labour MPs and teaching union officials celebrating the government’s change of heart on Monday night, as if a great injustice had been averted thanks to their tireless campaigning. On the contrary, a great injustice has been done, only to next year’s A-level candidates. Thanks to the generosity displayed towards this year’s candidates, children in my daughter’s year will have to meet a much higher standard to secure a place at a good university. And when some of them are knocked back — many more than were initially disappointed this year after Ofqual handed out the grades — no great figures will come to their aid.

It’s a typical bit of shortsightedness from our political class. Come up with a quick fix to avoid some bad publicity, even though the unintended consequences are far worse than the problem it was designed to solve. Bit like the lockdown, in fact. What a mess.

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