England A-level downgrades hit pupils from disadvantaged areas hardest

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have been worst hit by the controversial standardisation process used to award A-level grades in England this year, while pupils at independent schools benefited the most.

Private schools increased the proportion of students achieving top grades – A* and A – twice as much as pupils at comprehensives, official data showed.

According to detailed analysis published by exam regulator Ofqual, the pattern in England has been similar to but less dramatic than in Scotland, where pupils and schools in disadvantaged areas were marked down the most harshly by the statistical model used to replace exams.

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For students from disadvantaged backgrounds on the cusp of attending higher education, more than one in 10 of those assessed as receiving C grades by their teachers had their final result lowered by at least one grade, compared with 8% for those from non-disadvantaged backgrounds.

The attainment gap – between pupils on free school meals and those who aren’t – widened considerably, as did the gap between those with special educational needs and disabilities and those without, the data shows.

Headteachers and pupils reacted with anger and disappointment, while the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said “something has obviously gone horribly wrong with this year’s exam results” and suggested a Scotland-style U-turn – accepting all teachers’ recommended grades – should not be ruled out.

Thursday’s results confirm that 39% of teacher recommendations in England were downgraded.

“Parents, teachers and young people are rightly upset, frustrated and angry about this injustice. The system has fundamentally failed them. The government needs to urgently rethink,” Starmer said.

“We need to guarantee the right to individual appeals, the fee for appeals waived and nothing to be ruled out, including the U-turn that was forced on the Scottish government last week.”

Concern over the disproportionate impact sparked calls from school and college leaders for the government to investigate Ofqual’s methods and to consider alternative measures.

The headteachers of the Haberdashers’ Aske’s boys and girls schools in Hertfordshire said they had written to Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, outlining their criticisms of this year’s results, and said it was “hard to see how anything less can now be fair” than following Scotland in using teacher-assessed grades.

“It has become clear that, in many cases, an algorithm has generated results which do not do justice to students,” the heads, Rose Hardy and Gus Lock, said. They also said that Williamson’s last-minute offer of allowing appeals based on mock exam results was “a fig leaf” designed to deflect criticism.

Ofqual’s data revealed substantial differences between school types in the grades awarded. The proportion of A* and As awarded to independent schools rose by 4.7 percentage points, more than twice as much as state comprehensive schools. State sixth form colleges did even worse with a rise of 0.6 percentage points, compared with the increase of 2.3 points in England as a whole.

While 49% of entries by students at independent schools received an A grade or above, just 22% were awarded to students at comprehensive schools.

When calculated by socioeconomic status, pupils in the highest of three categories had their proportion of grades C or above lowered from 89% to 81%, a drop of eight percentage points. Pupils in the lowest category had their grades dropped more than 10 percentage points to 74.6%, receiving a C or above.

David Hughes, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, representing further education and sixth form colleges, has written to Williamson and Sally Collier, the head of Ofqual, demanding an “urgent technical review” of Ofqual’s decisions.

“If colleges and subsequently many disadvantaged students have been hit by an unfair or inconsistent process then this needs to be investigated immediately – and adjustments made quickly. This should not be left to individual colleges or students having to use the appeals process,” Hughes said.

Michelle Meadows of Ofqual said that the final grades received by students showed “simply no evidence of systematic bias” in this year’s results. “It’s important to remember that what the research literature shows on A-level predictions for university entrance is that there is a tendency to be more generous for students of lower socio-economic status,” she said.

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