Well, things happened while we were away! This is a results and admissions special, with some research news too. We’ll see what happens next before committing to our next update.
The withdrawal of BTEC results at 4.30 on Wednesday evening when L1 and L2 results they were due to be published alongside GCSEs on Thursday morning, was “just” another spin in this chaotic results cycle.
With the DfE having (finally) learned that it helps to address obvious concerns before issuing results, GCSE results were issued today with students seeing only the upside from the Ofqual algorithm. As for A levels, this is not the promised “triple lock” but a double lock -with students getting the better of the algorithmic grade and the centre assessed grade (CAG).
Hot off the press for university admissions, the caps on numbers for medicine and dentistry are being abolished (although placement and other restrictions may mean it doesn’t make that much difference). The Minister has announced extra teaching grant for universities with more students on high cost courses. And in a letter to universities (for once issued during the working day instead of late at night or at the weekend) she promises lots of “working together”. It all seems a bit late. The Minister has also published a letter to students.
And there is another story, about the impact next year on the current year 12. Deferrals will reduce the number of places available next year. Although there can still be appeals, there are expected to be fewer, however there will still be some students choosing to take their exams in person in the autumn – and despite requests for flexibility most of these students will need to wait until 2021/22 to start university, unless they can find programmes with a January start. This will include private and resit candidates who did not get CAGs.
And it is all so inconsistent with recent government positions and ministerial announcements. After suggesting that disadvantaged students shouldn’t bother going to university because they are being ripped off, the Minster has told universities to prioritise these students when allocating remaining places on over-subscribed courses. That’s a good thing, of course, but it demonstrates that the government is worried about the impact of the grades fiasco on the stats next year, so they have realised they do care about WP after all. And after abandoning the 50% participation target (again) and pressing the “too many students go to university” line (again), the Minister and Secretary of State are now urging universities to be as flexible as possible and let as many students as possible in. So much for them all doing vocational courses in FE colleges. Oh, but that was for other people’s children – not the constituents who have written protesting about their children losing their chances to go to university.
Those arguments haven’t gone away, though. Predictably with no story about GCSE unfairness, the story today is therefore about grade inflation and the risk of students who will struggle to succeed in whatever they do next because they have done better than they “should have”. There is a similar line for A levels too. There is already a government and regulatory focus on continuation and outcomes but it will be particularly charged for the cohort of 2020/21.
But it’s all going to be ok, because the Minister has established a task force. Having failed to consult the sector while all this was playing out, a task force was set up on Wednesday, meeting daily. UUK wrote to Gavin Williamson on Tuesday to set out the potential problems in all this. The result is a letter to students and VCs, and a press release. To quote, the action taken so far:
- Yesterday’s (19 August) daily meeting of the Government’s Higher Education Taskforce agreed to honouring all offers across courses to students who meet their conditions this coming year wherever possible, or if maximum capacity is reached to offer an alternative course or a deferred place.
- To support this commitment, the Government has lifted the cap on domestic medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and undergraduate teacher training places. Additional teaching grant funding will also be provided to increase capacity in medical, nursing, STEM and other high-cost subjects which are vital to the country’s social needs and economy.
- ….There are no Government caps on university nursing places, and the Government is working rapidly to build capacity in the nursing sector to support recruitment to the country’s vital public services.
- On Monday, the Government also confirmed it intends to remove temporary student number controls for the 2020/21 academic year to build capacity to admit students this coming year.
We will see what they do next. UUK have responded to the first set of announcements.
Meanwhile the blame game is continuing with officials saying they warned Ministers weeks ago, with allegations that Ministers were not on top of the detail, with Ministers at least hinting that it is all Ofqual’s fault because they said it would all be ok, officials at the DfE coming under fire, and the Office for Statistics Regulation announcing a review. The House of Commons Education Committee also raised these issues in early July.
- UCAS update from Wednesday evening:
- Our initial analysis shows approximately 15,000 of these students who were originally rejected by their original firm choice university with their moderated grades, will now meet the A level conditions of their offer with their centre assessed grades (CAGs).
- Approximately 100,000 students who had their grades upgraded were already placed at their first choice university on A level results day last Thursday.
- Of the remaining 60,000 students with higher grades from CAGs, around one in four (approximately 15,000) will now meet the A level offer conditions of their original first choice university. 90% of these students made their original firm choice at a higher tariff provider.
- UCAS has conducted further analysis into these 15,000 students, and found 7% of this group are from disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 Q1). This follows a record breaking year for disadvantaged students gaining places at high tariff providers, which at this point in the admissions cycle stands at 6,090 (compared with 5,290 at the same point last year for UK 18 year olds).
- Coverage on Wonkhe: today’s update on “a great new deal for universities and applicants” with analysis (of course) of the impact of the grade changes.
- There’s an IfS blog about what went wrong:
- The method used to assign grades makes some sense. Schools were asked to rank their students in each subject. Then information on earlier grades within the schools, and earlier attainment at GCSE, was used to assign grades to each student this year. The resulting distribution of grades looks comparable to the distribution in previous years. Indeed, there are rather more higher grades than in the past.
- There are two obvious problems with what Ofqual did. I suspect that there are more, but it will require many more hours of study to discover them.
- First, and most obvious, the process adopted favours schools with small numbers of students sitting any individual A Level. That is, it favours private schools. If you have up to five students doing an A Level, you simply get the grades predicted by the teacher. If between five and fifteen, teacher-assigned grades get some weight. More than 15 and they get no weight. Teacher predictions are always optimistic. Result: there was a near-five percentage point increase in the fraction of entries from private schools graded at A or A*. In contrast, sixth-form and further education colleges saw their A and A* grades barely rise — up only 0.3 per cent since 2019 and down since 2018. This is a manifest injustice. No sixth-form or FE college has the funding to support classes of fifteen, let alone five. The result, as Chris Cook, a journalist and education expert, has written: “Two university officials have told me they have the poshest cohorts ever this year because privately educated kids got their grades, the universities filled and there’s no adjustment/clearing places left.”
- Second, the algorithm used makes it almost impossible for students at historically poor-performing sixth forms to get top grades, even if the candidates themselves had an outstanding record at GCSE. For reasons that are entirely beyond me, the regulator did not use the full information on GCSE performance. Rather than use data that could help to identify when there are truly outstanding candidates, the model simply records what tenth of the distribution GCSE scores were in. There is a huge difference between the 91st and 99th percentiles, yet they are treated the same. There is little difference between the 89th and 91st, yet they are treated differently.
- … Then there appears to be a more general lack of common sense applied to the results of the model. If it predicts a U grade (a fail) for a subject in a school, then some poor sucker is going to fail, deserved or not. That’s why some seem to have been awarded Us despite predicted grades of C.
- Education Committee report on 7th July. The Ofqual response is here.
- You will remember the Royal Statistical Society for their heroic critique of the TEF in their response to the Pearce Review (as a side bar, the TEF metrics will be very peculiar next year – benchmarking will be an interesting process). They offered to help but refused to sign a restrictive non disclosure agreement and so were not involved. Their CEO is quoted in the FT and the article is worth reading.
- Jo Johnson in the Spectator being pleased that the numbers cap has been abolished:
- Before the exams meltdown, universities were losing both friends and influence on the Tory benches. They were deemed to be on the ‘wrong’ side of the referendum and then enemy combatants in a low-level culture war. The ministerial message to young people was shifting from the sensible ‘you don’t have to do a degree’ to the openly discouraging ‘too many go to university’. The high watermark of uni-phobia perhaps came last month when cabinet ministers denounced Tony Blair’s target of 50 per cent of children going to university and warned that any institution finding itself in financial difficulties would be ‘restructured’. To say our universities feel unloved by this government is an understatement.
- But the furore over the botched exam results has shown that most people are still very keen on universities. MPs have been besieged by thousands of families worried about their children’s future and enraged by grade downgrades and missed university offers. Are ministers really going to respond by telling kids (other people’s obviously) to take short vocational courses instead? Does any MP seriously relish the failure of a university in his patch? I doubt it.
- There’s another IfS blog about the impact:
- …it looks like amongst UK students holding offers at Oxford or Cambridge, around 10% more than expected (or around 500 extra students) may now have achieved their offers.
- Lower down the rankings, the effect on numbers is less clear: more applicants will have met their offers, but fewer will end up going to their insurance choice or finding a place via Clearing after missing their offers. But it seems plausible that for most higher-ranking universities, domestic student numbers will be higher than they expected.
- To allow for this, the government has lifted the student numbers caps that it had temporarily brought back for this year in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. But universities will still face physical capacity constraints in teaching and housing students. These constraints may not bind if many international and EU students do not take up their places as a result of the COVID-19 crisis: extra domestic students could just take their spots. But universities still don’t know how many of these students will turn up. They have made offers and will have to honour them if the international students do come.
- … These problems were entirely avoidable. A Level results should never have been released before being subject to scrutiny beyond Ofqual. The government should not have had to rely on shocked 18-year-olds on results day to realise there was a problem. And the allocation of places should not have happened immediately – the government should have released the results in advance and allowed an appeals process on grades before allowing universities to finalise places.
- Allocating A Level grades to students who did not sit exams was never going to be easy. But the government’s solution is a clear fail. This will have repercussions for universities and students, now and in the coming years.
- Pearson update on BTECs from Wednesday afternoon:
- Following our review and your feedback we have decided to apply Ofqual’s principles for students receiving BTECs this summer.
- This means we will now be regrading all the following BTECs – BTEC Level 3 Nationals (2010 QCF and 2016 RQF), BTEC Level 1/2 Tech Awards, BTEC Level 2 Technicals and BTEC Level 1/2 Firsts.
- BTEC qualification results have been generally consistent with teacher and learner expectations, but we have become concerned about unfairness in relation to what are now significantly higher outcomes for GCSE and A Levels.
- Although we generally accepted Centre Assessment Grades for internal (i.e. coursework) units, we subsequently calculated the grades for the examined units using historical performance data with a view of maintaining overall outcomes over time. Our review will remove these calculated grades and apply consistency across teacher assessed internal grades and examined grades that students were unable to sit.
- We will work urgently with you to reissue these grades and will update you as soon as we possibly can. We want to reassure students that no grades will go down as part of this review.
- We appreciate this will cause additional uncertainty for students and we are sorry about this. Our priority is to ensure fair outcomes for BTEC students in relation to A Levels and GCSEs and that no BTEC student is disadvantaged.
The IfS have a report on the impact of school closures:
- Learning time was dramatically lower during the lockdown than prior to it. On average, primary school students spent 4.5 hours learning on a typical school day during the lockdown, down from 6.0 hours before the lockdown (25% reduction). For secondary schools, the absolute and proportionate drops are even larger, from 6.6 hours a day before the lockdown to 4.5 hours a day during the lockdown (32% reduction).
- Learning time has also become more unequal, especially at primary school. Figure 1 shows the changesin total daily learning time, including both time in class and time on other educational activities, during a typical term week between 2014–15 and the lockdown period. It compares children from the poorest, middle and richest fifth of households (in the case of the 2020 data, based on their pre-pandemic earnings).
- For primary school children, the lockdown has created new inequalities in learning time. Before the pandemic, there was essentially no difference between the time that children from the poorest and richest households spent on educational activities. But, during the lockdown, learning time fell by less among primary school children from the richest families than among their less well-off peers. The end result is that, during the lockdown, the richest students spent 75 minutes a day longer on educational activities than their peers in the poorest families – an extra 31% of learning time.
- At secondary school, though, the picture looks very different. While the size of the gap between children from the poorest and the richest households during the lockdown, at 73 minutes a day, is almost precisely the same size as the gap for primary students, this inequality has much deeper roots; even before the lockdown, secondary school pupils from the richest fifth of families spent almost an hour a day more time on education than their worst-off peers. And, unlike at primary school, this is not just a story about the rich and the rest; the inequalities between the middle and the bottom are just as pronounced as those between the middle and the top.
- Existing research has shown that extra learning time leads to better educational outcomes. The widening of the socio-economic learning-time gap during the lockdown therefore suggests that the lockdown could worsen educational inequalities between children from poorer and richer backgrounds, especially among primary school students.
UKRI have announced that international students can apply for UKRI funded postgraduate studentships in the next academic year.
Dame Ottoline Leyser, the new head of UKRI was interviewed in Nature:
- The thing that I think is most important is the focus on people and on research culture, because the whole research system critically depends not just on researchers, but on all the people around them who support the research endeavour. [Research] is also a system now which is in a lot of stress. There are lots of bad behaviours, which are arguably driven by the huge stress and we need to think hard about shifting that.
- Poor cultural practices are a real problem in terms of bullying and harassment, research integrity and keeping the widest range of people in the system, to drive the creative and dynamic system that we need. Getting to a place where people are enjoying the work that they’re doing, where they’re all appreciated and valued, to me, is crucial. Many of those other things I think will flow from that.
- … We put a huge emphasis on a researcher’s publication and funding record, for example. We have put much less emphasis on things like their care for the next generation, leadership skills and the wider contributions people are making to the research system — which are absolutely essential for the system to function — and how they are engaging more widely. I think those are things that every researcher should be doing. It’s a whole range of things that we need to try to address to make research fun again, because it really should be.
- .. The way we’ve typically thought about equality, diversity and inclusion has been that you collect up the numbers and then you try to put in place things that ‘fix’ the minority in some way — for example, you make it easier for women to work in a system. To me, that’s not going to work. You have to create a system that genuinely supports diversity, and what that means is something quite uncomfortable. True diversity and inclusion is about valuing difference, not about creating some level playing field and pretending everybody’s the same and therefore they can all succeed on that playing field.
- Particularly in research, difference is where all the good stuff is. Disagreement is where all the new and exciting ideas come from. We have to build research cultures where difference is considered a good thing. In our funding portfolio as UKRI, we need to ask ourselves, are we funding a wide range of different types of thing or are we just funding more of the same?
And she also did an interview in the THE:
- Many hope that Dame Ottoline – known for her critiques of the research excellence framework and science’s failure to introduce more family-friendly policies – will provide a more robust challenge to government policy, having been far closer to the science coalface than most long-serving administrators.
- Will she continue to be as forthright as she has been? “I’m certainly not going to pussyfoot about,” said Dame Ottoline on her upcoming dealings with the key players in government.
- That said, the recent pro-science moves by Boris Johnson’s administration, which last month reconfirmed its ambition to double research spending to £22 billion a year by 2024, mean that an adversarial stance is probably not the best approach, she explained.
- … She was not, however, keen on the idea of forcing institutions to adopt certain practices by making them a condition of UKRI funding in the same way that, in 2015, the chief medical officer, then Dame Sally Davies, made an Athena SWAN diversity award a prerequisite for receiving NHS medical research funding.
- “Mandating particular approaches will not deliver the diversity that we need,” insisted Dame Ottoline, who said many scientists felt the decision to make Athena SWAN mandatory “undermined some of the core principles [of the scheme] and how institutions think about diversity”.
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- There’s another IfS blog about the impact: