Top A-level grades soar at private schools as sixth form colleges lose out

The number of grades at A and above rose by 4.7 points in private schools but by just 0.3 points at colleges. 

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Private schools pupils in England have emerged as the big winners from the government’s method for awarding A-levels on predicted grades with state sixth forms losing out.

After exams were cancelled owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, students across England were awarded grades based on a combination of teacher predictions and statistical modelling with around 280,000 seeing their predicted grades drop. Figures published by exam regulator Ofqual showed that the number of grades at A and above rose by 4.7 percentage points in private schools compared to 2019. State sixth-form and further education colleges saw a rise of just 0.3 percentage points, while academies saw a 1.7 point rise and secondary comprehensives a 2.0 point rise. Selective state schools saw a 1.2 point rise.

Private schools saw the largest increase in the top grades compared to last year

Percentage point change in grades A and above 2019-2020
Private schools saw the largest increase in the top grades compared to last year
Percentage point change in grades C and above 2019-2020
Source: Ofqual

As exams were unable to take place this year, schools and colleges were asked to submit a predicted grade for each student to Ofqual, along with a rank order of students for each grade for each subject. In general, predicted grades tend to be higher than actual results  so the regulator made the decision to process the predicted grades in order to make sure they were not excessively high compared to the previous year’s results, and not unfair to students at institutions that may predict lower grades.

Ofqual, however, decided to give more weight to predicted grades when students are in a smaller cohort – in other words, where there are fewer pupils entering for each subject. This decision advantaged private schools, as state sixth forms often cover large areas and have far more students.

Privately educated pupils have thus “won” twice: their parents have already paid for them to learn in a small class setting, leading to higher predicted grades overall; and the moderation system has been less likely to downgrade those predictions.

Last week, one exam board told the TES that for large-entry subjects such as chemistry, history and mathematics, 60 per cent of grades will have been calculated using a statistical model alone, rather than using teacher-assessed grades.

This may have also benefited private schools, who tend to have proportionately more entries in small-entry subjects such as Classics.

News of the disparity sparked outrage this morning, with Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeting: “Is this what the Tories mean when they say ‘levelling up’?”

A separate survey by the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) found a third of responses saying unprompted that calculated grades bore little or no resemblance to performance in previous years which was the entire purpose of the standardisation system.

Responses included one college saying: “We would appear to be below our historic data both at centre and in some cases subject level and making this year’s set of results the college’s worst results in the last 15 years.”

James Kewin, the deputy chief executive of the SFCA, told the New Statesman that the evidence from colleges suggested that grades at sixth forms had actually dropped - rather than remained steady as the Ofqual report suggested - but that was masked by combining their grades with further education colleges.

“The sense from our members is certainly not that they have stood still,” he said. “It looks very much like in many, many cases their results this year are significantly down on previous years.

“We knew that teacher predictions were going to be higher. We weren't surprised that there was a difference. But we were surprised at how much of a difference there was.”

The association is calling for students to be awarded their teacher-assessed grades, as there are also issues with mocks or resits as a plausible alternative to the moderated grades.

Kewin said: “Some subjects don't have mocks anyway, some colleges don't do mocks, and some colleges that do do mocks weren't able to do it because of the lockdown.

“And I think the problem with the resitting is that you have to put plans on hold for the future - if you've got an offer from your university of choice or whatever it is, the mechanics of it don't really work.”

Michael Goodier is a data journalist at New Statesman Media Group

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