Speaking as a parent of a young woman who has just returned exactly GCSE results she needed, I have to say I’m not as non plussed about the outstanding performances this year as others seem to be. Nor am I as worried as some.
The assessments have been rigorous, ongoing and consistent for the last school year (as opposed to a final exams crammed into May and June). I’m pretty certain no teacher wants to send any student in over their heads.
The problem from the university point of view is that without a bell jar of moderation grades (for the second year in a row) have inflated some of them into the stratosphere of 8 and 9 grades (neither of which existed in my day).
A piece in the Economist magazine explains the situation in England:
Young people have the numbers, the desire—and now the grades to go to university, thanks to the chaotic handling of A-level exams. Despite a steady rise in covid-19 cases last autumn, the government waited until January to cancel exams in England (Scotland and Wales moved earlier).
It made two concessions, both of which were likely to push up marks.
First, it said pupils should only be assessed on what they had been taught. Given the number of days that schools had been closed, some had been taught rather little. Second, the grades that teachers assigned would be only lightly moderated.
Last year’s A-level grades were high, especially after the government ditched a clumsy attempt to bring them down by using an algorithm. The ones that pupils received on August 10th were stratospheric. Many more A* and A grades were handed out (see chart).
In private schools, 40% of all A-level grades were A*. Girls have done especially well out of teacher assessments. In 2019, 39% of those who studied maths got an A* or A, compared with 42% of boys. This year they beat boys 58% to 54%.
Mark Corver of DataHE, an analysis firm, predicted this year’s surge in grades. He also predicts that the tide of young people into higher education will not recede. University-going is like a ratchet: people who went usually want their children to go. Besides, grades at GCSE (taken at 16) are as inflated as a-levels, which has encouraged younger pupils to set their sights higher.
Interestingly, it concludes:
Because student loans are issued on generous terms, most are never fully repaid. The Higher Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, reckons that the government will have to write off 54% of the loans issued to last year’s cohort, at a cost of almost £11bn ($15bn).
Ministers could cut fees, alter repayment terms or cap student numbers. But they will find it hard. The rush into higher education means that many more voters now have an interest in a well-funded university system.
Which raises questions about the validity of the business model underlying the shift from grant to loans, never mind direct charging of fees.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty