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18 August 2016

There is much to celebrate this results day, but A-levels remain deeply flawed

It’s time for post-qualification admissions – the system of predicted grades and clearing harms pupils, universities, and the taxpayer.

By Tim Wigmore

It is A-level results day. And if there is much to cheer – record numbers of students going to university, with disadvantaged pupils 7 per cent more likely to enter higher education than last year – this cannot disguise that the system of A-levels remains deeply flawed.

This year, it will be significantly harder for pupils to get papers remarked after Ofqual, the exam boards regulator, said that remarking would only be allowed if there were “clear errors”. In response, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference and the National Association of Head Teachers have warned students and parents that, “it may be harder than ever before for A-level candidates who appeal their grades to get a fair outcome”. Only 29 per cent of head teachers think that the new appeals system is fair.

It is just one example of the inequities at the heart of A-levels and the whole university admissions process. Take predicted grades. Half of predicted grades are wrong, including almost 10 per cent that are wrong by more than one grade.

The errors are not evenly spread either: those who have special needs, speak English as a second language, or who are poorer, are the most likely to be under-predicted and, therefore, less likely to get in – or even to apply – to a university that fits their aptitude.

“We know that teacher judgement is flawed,” says Jonathan Simons, Head of the Education Unit at Policy Exchange. The tendency to under-predict the most disadvantaged students exacerbates other advantages more privileged students receive from the university admission process – personal statements help independent school applicants to stand out from the crowd, while those from state schools, who receive less help composing their statement, often struggle to draw on suitable work and life experience, as the Sutton Trust has found.

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Last year, a record number did apply after knowing their grades, through clearing. But in many ways this system is even worse: students face a mad rush to apply to university in the minutes after getting their results. Neither they, nor the institutions they are applying to, do any research on each other, even though they will be stuck together for three years. Last year, Birmingham and Sussex took to advertising spare university places on Twitter.

This is madness. It damages students who, in their panic to get a place somewhere, risk ending up doing a course they have little interest in, at a university that is not right for them. It damages universities, who are lumbered with demotivated students. And it also damages the taxpayer: more pupils doing unsuitable courses mean more students who drop out or switch courses, and so more government money wasted.

Post-qualification admissions are the norm in most other countries. The system is simple and transparent: pupils apply after they have done all their exams, not on the basis of predicted grades. They, and the universities they apply to, have the best possible information to make the most informed decisions. That is a boon to all students, but particularly disadvantaged pupils.

The flaws of the UK’s university application system have been known for many years. In 2004, the Schwartz Report on fair admissions advocated that all students apply after their A-levels, and the first term of university be put back to January, as a central way of improving access to university.

The government supported the idea, but it was delayed until after the 2005 general election, and then never implemented. Plans were revisited in 2012, but were later abandoned: post-qualification admissions would disturb the timetable of the academic year, and cause logistical problems. Expediency dictated that this battle was never fought. 

Theresa May has pledged to put social mobility “at the heart of my government”. One way to make good on these words would be to revisit post-qualification admissions, and end the chaos of predicted grades and clearing once and for all.

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