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A-level ‘chaos’ risks widening north-south divide, regional leaders warn

Students from deprived areas more likely to have had their predicted results downgraded by Ofqual

Colin Drury
Friday 14 August 2020 18:45 BST
Gavin Williamson defends last minute A-level grading changes

The north-south divide could be exacerbated by the controversial changes to A-level grading, regional leaders and MPs have warned, after it emerged that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds had been disproportionately hit by the lowering of grades.

Students from poorer areas were more likely to have seen their predicted results downgraded by regulator Ofqual in comparison with their wealthier counterparts, figures showed on Thursday.

The north’s higher proportion of such deprived areas has prompted concerns that this year’s gradings will ultimately widen the already growing gulf with southeast England.

“We are concerned that the Ofqual algorithm may well have entrenched regional disparities,” said Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Exams across the UK were cancelled this summer because of the coronavirus, and an algorithm was designed to calculate this year’s results based on predicted grades, previous work and the historical performance of schools and colleges.

The result has been that pupils from previously underperforming institutions – often in poorer areas – were more likely to see results downgraded from what teachers believed they were likely to achieve.

Mr Murison said: “We are working to close the educational divide between north and south. The gap in attainment being widened without final examinations being set strikes us as evidence of potential issues with the operation of the algorithm used by Ofqual, which will potentially give grounds for schools in the north to make an additional challenge to current results in the appeals process.”

His comments followed those of the shadow education minister, Emma Hardy, who is the MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. She said: “The government has created A-level results chaos that particularly threatens the social mobility and aspiration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Reacting to data that showed private schools had seen a rise in good grades, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “Tell me how this isn’t discrimination based on class.”

Meanwhile, in an interview on LBC, the education secretary’s former politics teacher at Scarborough Sixth Form College, on the northeast coast, said algorithms made the system a “lottery”. Peter Ashton told the station: “It tends to disadvantage high-achieving pupils in low-performing schools.

“So for example, if a school got 5 per cent grade As last year and the teachers are recommending 10 per cent grade As, they’ll change the results to fit this model and the grades will be lowered. Students will suffer as a result of that.”

Asked whether the assessment was accurate, Gavin Williamson said his old teacher was “always correct” – but went on to defend the system.

“What we’ve asked the exam boards is – where they think there may be outliers – is actually to be contacting the schools to talk with them to make sure that appeals are put forward,” he said.

Ofqual itself spent much of Thursday defending the system.

The body said the differences between the change in predicted and final results was “relatively similar” across all socio-economic groups, adding that it was “difficult to draw firm conclusions” over the relationship between deprivation and grade adjustment.

Some 85 per cent of students categorised as having a “low” socio-economic status by Ofqual had been predicted to achieve a grade C and above by their schools. This fell to 74.6 per cent once final grades were calculated under the algorithm – a drop of 10.4 percentage points.

The proportion of students from the least deprived backgrounds awarded a grade C and above fell by 8.3 percentage points during the process, from 89.3 per cent to 81 per cent.

Boris Johnson said the exam results were “robust” and “dependable”.

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