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Submission to the Education Select Committee

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP
Chair, Education Select Committee
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

28 August 2020


Dear Mr Halfon

Summer exam results and next steps for students

I write ahead of the Committee’s hearing next week with representatives from Ofqual, and later in the month with the Secretary of State for Education, on the errors made in awarding this summer’s exam grades and support for students who have been adversely impacted.

The SMF is a charity supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to go to top universities, without the knowledge or networks to fulfil their potential. We work with approximately 1800 young people applying to university for admission in 2020 or 2021 who were expecting to take A levels, Highers or BTEC level 3 diplomas this summer. Our students are predominantly on free school meals, the first generation to attend university and attending schools with lower average attainment levels – precisely the cohort most adversely impacted by this summer’s events. These young people are not statistics to us, we work with them all year round and we know despite their huge potential they are consistently undersold.


Ofqual consultation on the process for awarding exam grades

We responded to the Ofqual consultation in April 2020 about the proposed process for awarding exam grades. Our full submission is attached. In our response we highlighted the extent to which young people from deprived backgrounds had already been further disadvantaged in the pandemic, and the bias that they experience in grade predictions and teacher assessments for various reasons. We wrote, “We believe Ofqual should incorporate into its statistical model factors which acknowledge and correct for the bias that high achieving young people from deprived backgrounds experience and adjust centre rankings accordingly.” It has of course since become evident that the opposite happened: rather than correcting for bias against disadvantaged students, the statistical model multiplied it.


The impact on the young people we support

At this time of year we always provide some support to students who are disappointed with their results as they make decisions about accepting university places and navigate clearing. This year however has been unprecedented with a huge number of our students contacting us on August 13 and the days following to seek advice and support. Many were distraught and tearful – some were furious – all were stunned at the huge difference between their expected grades and the results they were awarded. The most devastating conversations were with students who were considering giving up on their ambitions.

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are aspiring to attend top universities know that their chances of success are lower than their more privileged peers and that they will have to work twice as hard. Those who have been studying during the pandemic have already had their resilience and mental health sorely tested. For these students to be told their achievements had been discounted because of their background was cruel.


Outstanding problems for our student

The decision to award centre assessed grades (CAGs) to students has made a significant difference to our student cohort and the majority have now secured university places broadly as planned. However there are a significant minority who are still being impacted and we are concerned they are being overlooked:

  • Students who want to appeal their CAGs

The only grounds for appeal against a CAG are administrative error, bias or discrimination, and in such cases a student cannot appeal directly to an exam board but must persuade their school or college to appeal.

Despite everything that has happened to undermine the confidence of students in the way that grades have been awarded this year, Ofqual is maintaining the position it set out in April that students cannot appeal their CAG on the grounds that it does not reflect their academic record. We have individual examples of students with strong academic records which are not reflected in their CAGs and whose prospects are greatly affected. For example, one student applying for medicine who was consistently achieving top grades but whose CAG was based on the grades achieved in her mock exams – which were sat at the same time as medicine admissions tests, which the student prioritised, resulting in lower mock grades than expected.

This example shows how schools and colleges considered different evidence and applied judgement differently – some focused more heavily on mocks, others on a holistic overview of the student, and some even internally downgraded students in line with Ofqual’s guidance that they should take into account the distribution of CAGs compared with previous years (precisely the approach now discredited in the standardisation process Ofqual applied).

Given that centres never expected CAGs to be final grades, and given that it is well-evidenced that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be under-predicted, we would ask Ofqual to consider appeals on the basis of academic record.

We are particularly concerned by examples of students who have concerns about racism and discrimination affecting teacher predictions who are having difficulty persuading the school or college to appeal on their behalf, since to do so would be to admit their own institutional failings. One student with a strong academic record has been awarded a B in chemistry, making it near impossible to study medicine as they had wished, by a teacher who has been reported multiple times to the faculty for prejudice and racist behaviour. We would ask Ofqual to consider appeals on the basis of discrimination or bias directly from students.

  • Students wishing to sit exams in autumn 2020 or summer 2021

This year, the process for awarding grades includes the option for students to sit exams in the autumn. It is widely evidenced that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have had less teaching time and support and fewer study resources than their better off peers during the last six months, and some of our students do not think they will achieve their full potential if they sit exams in the autumn. We raised this concern in our submission to Ofqual in April but there seems to have been little attention paid to supporting disadvantaged students to prepare for autumn exams.

Some highly competitive courses, particularly medical schools, do not generally accept students who have resat exams. We have students with conditional places at medical school whose CAGs are narrowly below their required grades and who wish to take exams in summer 2021, but are being told this will be deemed a ‘resit’. We have raised this issue with the Medical Schools Council; it would be helpful if Ofqual could issue guidance that students awarded grades in 2020 who sit exams in 2021 should not be considered as ‘resitting’ their exams.

  • Requirement to defer university places

We welcome the decision to lift the cap on university admissions in 2020, including lifting the restriction on the number of medicine and dentistry admissions for 2020. This has ensured that many of our students who had initially been downgraded now have a place at university for 2020 as they wanted. However, some students are being told they will have to defer their admission until 2021 because courses have already been filled. Our students come from very low income families, the majority of them on free school meals, and an unplanned gap year is simply unaffordable for many of them – in addition, a further twelve month gap in their education when they have been out of school already since March is likely to further increase the attainment gap.

We have been reassured by the Office for Students that they expect students to be required to defer to 2021 only in exceptional circumstances, and they will expect universities to ensure this does not impact on students from low socio-economic backgrounds. We have also been told that students who are required to defer may be entitled to compensation. We would welcome a public statement to this effect, confirmation of the compensation available to students and some thought to be given to a wider scheme of financial and other support for students who have to defer. The Department for Education also needs to give thought now to mitigating the negative impact on disadvantaged students applying for higher education in 2021 if there are fewer places available because of deferrals, including whether to reintroduce the cap on places in 2021.

Other issues affecting our students include:

  • Students whose places were confirmed only after the decision to award CAGs have found that affordable university accommodation has already been allocated, leaving them to find expensive private accommodation. Some students have been ‘locked out’ of accommodation and other university support services because they were initially rejected.
  • Clerical errors and delays: for example, one student has not received a grade for their A level in Maths due to a clerical error – their chosen university cannot confirm their place until the grade is certified. The student has been unable to contact the exam board (Pearson Edexcel); the student was expecting to move into university accommodation on 1 September but without a confirmed place cannot do so.

We would welcome recognition from Ofqual and from the Secretary of State that there are outstanding issues to resolve so that disadvantaged young people are not penalised by the failure of the grade awarding process this summer. And we would welcome assurance that the lessons will be learned, and planning has already begun, to ensure that disadvantaged students currently expecting to take exams in summer 2021 are better supported and protected.


Yours sincerely

Sarah Atkinson
Chief Executive

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