How things are looking for school leavers this summer by Professor Barnaby Lenon

How are things looking for school leavers this summer?

1) A-level grades

We know that A-level grades will be pegged in the midway point between the grade distribution of each subject in 2019 (the last year before Covid) and that of last year. So, grades will on average be lower than last year. Each subject has a different grade distribution. Where the numbers taking a subject are small, like ancient Greek, examiner judgement will become more important than a simple statistical formula.

In 2020 and 2021, grades were greatly inflated by the use of centre and teacher assessed grades. This year grades are being deflated. The reason Ofqual want to get back towards the 2019 grade distribution is that the more selective universities need grades to be more discriminating at the top end than was the case in 2020 and 2021.

2) Because of the disruption to schooling over the past two years, A-levels have been made slightly easier by cutting out parts of some syllabuses and announcing in advance which topics will come up. These are called ‘mitigations’.

3) But there could still be shocks when results come out because:

  • Schools, parents and pupils might not have realised that the planned grade distribution for this year will massively impact the A* and A grades. That is because these are the grades that were most inflated in 2021 and will, therefore, be cut back the most. For example, the A* grade was awarded to 7.7% of results in 2019 but 19.1% of results last year; this year that figure should be closer to 13% – 40,000 fewer A*s. The reason this is so important is that most grade requirements of the best universities contain A* and A requirements.
  • These A-level students never took GCSEs so it has been harder to predict their A-level results accurately. Their centre-assessed GCSE grades were quite flattering.
  • Some students have had a more disrupted education over the past two years than others.  The Ofqual mitigations apply to everyone equally so they will probably not reduce the attainment gap between those who had little disruption and those who missed a great deal of school.
  • This will be the first time since 2019 that exams have been written and marked in the normal way. This fact alone may have an impact. Some young teachers have had little experience of preparing pupils for public exams.

4) University entry is a bit harder this year than last. There are two main reasons for this:

  • Last year universities took too many students because the grades of applicants were inflated. Students need accommodation and, in the case of medicine and sciences, they need hospital placements and laboratories. So, universities that took too many last year are cutting back this year. There is a reduced offer rate, especially in medicine and dentistry. 16% of medicine and dentistry applications have received an offer this year compared to 29% in 2019.
  • The number of 18-year-olds is growing and the proportion of them applying to go to university has grown. There is also continued growth in demand from international students, especially those from outside the EU. So, there are more applicants. This means that a pupil who misses their offer by one grade cannot be sure that they will still gain the place.

In most subjects, universities can offer as many places as they like – so there are sufficient places overall.  It is just that the more selective universities will be tougher on entry requirements and some students who might have got into those universities last year will be taking places at lower tariff universities this year.

Oxford and Cambridge are taking more international students because they pay higher fees.  They are also taking more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These two universities are almost unique in not growing undergraduate numbers so the result is that they are taking fewer UK middle-class students from both state and private schools.

5) Fortunately, UCAS is getting better and better at handling applicants whose results are stronger or worse than expected. This year many will be using Clearing (and the options such as ‘decline my place’ and Clearing Plus) with more than 30,000 courses likely to be available after results are out.

Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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