Impact of predicted grades means education is no longer a tool for social mobility

The government's predicted grade appeals process hasn’t worked. Instead, the boundaries of the age-old class system have been renewed

Suriyah Bi
Thursday 10 December 2020 13:41 GMT
Only 0.2 per cent of respondents in a new report said their predicted grade appeals were successful
Only 0.2 per cent of respondents in a new report said their predicted grade appeals were successful (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ten years ago, in pre-pandemic conditions, I was told by my sixth form careers advisor that I would not be accepted into any university. Such underestimations from teachers were familiar to a British Muslim woman of Kashmiri heritage, attending a state school in one of the most disadvantaged areas in the UK – Alum Rock, Birmingham. 

Despite this, I continued to apply to university and managed to win a place at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. I went on to study a master’s and a PhD, the final year I completed at Yale University. If my grades had been predicted like they had been for millions of students in the summer of 2020, I would not have been able to make it this far. 

As the summer results showed, many young people lost out their places at university, but while these were anecdotal narratives and case studies, the true scale of the impact of predicted grades on the outcome of young people’s educational prospects was yet to be understood.  

At the Equality Act Review, we conducted research examining student experiences of having their predicted grades post-issued. Supported by David Lammy MP and Afzal Khan MP, the nationwide study received more than two thousand responses from students from a range of ethnic, racial, regional, and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

The findings of the Predicting Futures 2.0 report are truly shocking. Of our 2,091 responses, we found 80 per cent were from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and almost 60 per cent were from households that were below the national average income of £28,500. The study also found that almost 65 per cent of respondents missed out on university offers, and 22 per cent missed out on sixth form offers. 

When taking the demographic background of our respondents into consideration, the poorest students of black and minority ethnic backgrounds were worst affected as they were robbed of their future educational prospects. Complicating matters further, more than 50 per cent of respondents stated that predicted grades had a negative impact on their mental health, which we believe to be underreported.  

The experience of challenging predicted grades was also a focus of the study. We found that almost 70 per cent of respondents had appealed, however, in tracing the outcomes of these appeals, 33 per cent said that they were not permitted by the school or sixth form to appeal, 18 per cent said they were awaiting a response and 20 per cent stated they were unsuccessful in their appeal. While 2 per cent of respondents reported that their appeals were successful, this made no difference to their educational prospects, as they had already missed out on their university or college offers. 

Only 0.2 per cent of respondents reported that their appeals were successful and that this had a positive outcome for their educational prospects. This amounted to a mere two students of 2,091 respondents. Challenging predicted grades through the appeals process that the government hailed as a solution to the debacle, was not accessible to most students in our data set. The very structures of the education system put in place during covid-19 were designed to prevent access to the appeals process and therefore equal access to educational opportunities, particularly as schools and colleges behaved as gatekeepers, blocking access to the appeals process in a third of cases.  

Our study also traced student intention to re-sit exams in the Autumn, which was framed as a remedy for those who missed out this summer to “prove” themselves. While 50 per cent of students said they would retake their exams, 27 per cent did not wish to retake and 23 per cent were unsure about retaking. This latter 50 per cent of students indicates that predicted grades have put at risk a loss of aspiration and talent from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, which will no doubt have a knock-on effect on the future diversity of industries and workplaces given that the majority of respondents were from black, minority and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Adding further bleak tones to the picture, 60 per cent of respondents were women, which when considered in conjunction with the pre-existing and deeply entrenched gender pay gap, the future for women in work is becoming even more crippled.  

It would be a mistake to view these findings as pertaining only to the education sector. The very fabric of our future economy depends on the success of our youth today. If the youth are suppressed today, by default our economy will be suppressed tomorrow. Educational prospects have long been associated with acquiring socio-cultural capital, which allows access to many things, including own a home. 

As wider research indicates, homeownership is increasingly being associated with inherited wealth, further placing those from black, minority and lower-socioeconomic backgrounds far from the reach of the property market, which we see translated in “generation rent”. 

The grades prediction debacle is the first fallen slate triggering a domino effect of inequality for generations to come. We can no longer view education as a vehicle for social mobility. What we are witnessing amidst the coronavirus pandemic is a government-sanctioned renewal of the boundaries of the age-old class system, complicated further with the crippling implications of being of black or from a minority religious background. 

The government cannot be allowed to abysmally fail an important and valuable section of society in this way. The plans announced yesterday to notify students well in advance of topics that may appear on their exams is a start but much more action needs to be taken. 

Appallingly, the Department for Education has failed to contact students directly, offering a care package that provides details of resources and helpful organisations. We believe that this should be done as soon as possible for all those who received results this summer. We also recommended that these students be offered free counselling sessions to support their mental health, as well as skills workshops, mentoring, and placement opportunities to continue to foster their personal and professional development. 

We also recommend that for those who missed out on university offers in 2020, that their places be reserved for 2021 entry. There is a long way to go to correct the injustice of grade predictions, taking on board the report’s recommendations would be the first step.  

Dr Suriyah Bi is a lecturer at SOAS University of London and teaching fellow at Edinburgh University. She is also CEO of the Equality Act Review and author of the Predicting Futures 2.0 report

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