Today is A-level results day, the first since 2019 on which students are receiving results based on public exams. As predicted, the number of top grades has fallen, while the number of students who applied but have been left without a university place has risen to more than 20,000, a 46 per cent increase on last year. There are many reasons for this – competition from lucrative international students, regulators trying to control grade inflation, a backlog caused by universities over-offering – but the most persistent reason is this: our continued gambling on predicted grades.
Predicted grades are infamously inaccurate. Only 16 per cent of students actually achieve them, according to research by University College London; in 2019, 84 per cent of predicted grades were wrong, with 79 per cent of them amounting to overestimates. Teachers such as myself are put in an impossible situation and are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we err on the side of caution we can be accused of limiting students’ life chances, but if we are overly optimistic then students may be forced into the unmoderated, panicked frenzy that is trying to get a university place through clearing after results day.
This is further complicated by ever-fluctuating grade boundaries and the fact that more and more universities overstate their entry requirements. Many employ an “offer high but accept lower” approach; for example, a student who applies to the University of Nottingham may be offered AAB, but would be accepted even if they achieve ABB. The devaluation of grades is also exacerbated by the explosion of unconditional offers. In 2013 only around 1 per cent of students were given unconditional offers; in 2019 this was almost 38 per cent. Yet students with unconditional offers are even more likely to miss their predicted grades and are more likely to drop out in their first year, the Office for Students has found.
We also know that high-achieving disadvantaged students are more likely to be under-predicted in their grades, which means that they are ten percentage points less likely to apply to the most selective institutions.
So why are we still relying on this arcane, nonsensical system that basically turns teachers into astrologers, and asks students to make some of the most important decisions of their lives on the basis of academic horoscopes?
There are a few alternatives already being considered. The first is that students apply to universities after an earlier results day, once they know their exam grades. The second is for students to apply under the present timetable, but for offers and decisions not to be made until results day. Both would require exams to be marked much more quickly, which exam boards have resisted despite technological improvements.
The practical issues of compressing the application process in this way leads to a third alternative, recently proposed by Liz Truss: moving the start of the university year to January. Her reason for doing this – so that all students with straight A*s could be automatically invited to interview at Oxford or Cambridge – is controversial to say the least. It assumes the entire academic year should be disrupted to suit a tiny minority; it disregards contextual admissions (what about a student who has slightly lower grades because of circumstances, but much greater potential?) and also forgets that Oxford and Cambridge simply do not have the capacity to interview that many students.
Post-qualification admissions are challenging, but they are not impossible. There tends to be an institutional aversion to change in the education sector, but with some imagination and flexibility there are lots of workable options on the table which would free students from the lottery of predicted grades. Out of the 38 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we are the only one that persists with this strange system of relying on hypotheticals. Surely that tells us something in itself?
[See also: The great university con: how a British degree lost all value]