A-level results day: Unconditional offers could lead to drop in top grades, experts warn

If students with unconditional offers 'take their foot off the pedal' they may not get high grades

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Monday 13 August 2018 20:13 BST
Students may have ‘taken their foot off the pedal’ during exams following a rise in guaranteed places on degree courses
Students may have ‘taken their foot off the pedal’ during exams following a rise in guaranteed places on degree courses (Getty)

The soaring number of unconditional offers handed out by universities could lead to a drop in the proportion of exams awarded the top grades this week, experts have suggested.

Students may have “taken their foot off the pedal” following a rise in guaranteed places on degree courses, resulting in a potential drop in the percentage of A or A* grades, academics have said.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, added that major reforms to A-levels in England – as well as a rise of unconditional offers – could bring down the overall pass rate for the highest grades this year.

His warnings come ahead of A-level results day on Thursday, when thousands of students across the country will find out what grades they have got in their exams and what university they may study at.

Recent figures published by Ucas showed that nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of teenagers have received at least one unconditional offer this year amid competition to attract candidates.

In total, almost 68,000 of these offers have been made to 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year, up from less than 3,000 just five years ago.

The issue has sparked concerns from ministers and school leaders, who have argued the practice undermines the credibility of the university system and puts youngsters’ futures at risk.

If those given a guaranteed offer “really take their foot off the pedal, they may not be getting the high grades that they might otherwise have done”, Professor Smithers said.

There have also been major changes to A-levels in England – with a move away from coursework and modular exams throughout the course. Last year, the first grades were awarded in the first 13 subjects to be reformed – and the proportion of top grades fell in these subjects.

A further 11 A-level subjects – including languages, geography, dance, drama and theatre, music, PE and religious studies – have now been reformed with grades awarded for the first time this year.

Professor Smithers said: “Putting together the fact that 24 of the most frequently taken A-levels have changed in England, and that we’ve got unconditional offers operating, they’re likely to bring the results down a bit.”

But the exams regulator Ofqual has said they will make sure that students are not penalised for being the first to take new exams – as final grades would be fairly distributed.

Experts have also predicted that boys will score more A and A* grades than girls in the new A-levels, which are tested by exams, rather than coursework.

On unconditional offers, Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “If there is a dip in the top grades, it could well be due to youngsters taking their foot off the gas. I do think it’s something that we have to look at.”

He added: “We’re very concerned that universities are doing this to get bums on seats.

“Whereas, in fact what should be happening in the process is that students are on the most appropriate degree provision for them, for what their potential career progression is going to be, and if the nature of the course that they’re doing is best suited to them.”

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said that unconditional offers still account for a small proportion (7.1 per cent) of all offers made.

He said: “They are made in a range of circumstances.These include when applicants already have qualifications or extensive practical and relevant experience for courses such as music or journalism.

“They can also be awarded where evidence suggests applicants are clearly on track to exceed the required entry grades, and to those from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to do well at university with extra support.

“Unconditional offers, when used appropriately, can help students and ensure that universities are able to respond flexibly to the range of applicants seeking places.

“Universities UK will continue to work with Ucas to monitor trends and any impact unconditional offer-making might have on exam results.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have reformed A-levels to meet the expectations of universities and employers, and our new gold standard GCSEs are on a par with qualifications in the best education systems in the world. These reforms will ensure students have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed both in further study and in the workplace.‎

“Ofqual has been clear that the qualification standard for A-levels remains the same, meaning a student who would have previously achieved an A grade would still do so in the reformed qualification.‎ GCSEs are more rigorous and both teachers and pupils rose to the challenge of the new exams last year.

“Ofqual always ensures no student is disproportionately affected by changes to qualifications, as they do each year for any new exam. Since 2014 we have been working with the exam regulator and the exam boards to ensure teachers are prepared to deliver these changes.”

Additional reporting by PA

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