Last week, young people across Scotland reached the end of years of schooling and were presented with their final grades. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, these results were based not on a summer exam series, but on predicted grades from teachers and subsequent moderation by examining bodies. As many as a quarter of grades were lowered, hitting working-class pupils in poorer regions and schools the hardest. Further south, A level and GCSE students are still awaiting similarly-calculated results, due for release on the 13th and 20th of August respectively. But, with individual pupils’ futures at the mercy of wildly varying school averages, the most disadvantaged students are facing even more barriers to higher education.
Even in the usual exam cycle, due to class-based stereotypes and bias, predicted grades cause disproportionate harm to disadvantaged students applying for university admission. On average, poorer students who perform well academically are given lower grade predictions, whereas wealthier students are most likely to have their grades inflated. For similar reasons, lower predicted grades are also often given to pupils with special educational needs, regardless of their academic ability. This hinders these pupils’ university applications, narrowing their opportunities to attend universities with higher entry requirements. Some students opt to avoid this problem by taking a gap year, applying to universities once final grades are confirmed, but this is not possible for many working-class pupils, who cannot support themselves financially or rely on family support in the interim. The predicted grade system also fails to cater for disadvantaged students who may perform poorly during term time due to challenging personal circumstances, such as caring responsibilities or work, but cram for final exams and still achieve high grades.
Middle- and upper-class cultural capital gifts many wealthier parents the ability to manipulate the system, using assertiveness and debate skills to open their children’s predicted grades to haggling. Wealthier students in general are streamlined into the universities with higher entry requirements, which are typically more reputable, stratifying the university experience.
The 2020 cohort’s final results are subject to the influence of both region- and class-based assumptions
The harm caused by the predicted grade system has intensified this year. Without real exam results, moderated predicted grades are the only grades available. It has already become clear that this moderation is weighted by the past performance of individual schools, with reports of students at lower-achieving schools who were given high predicted grades facing disappointment as exam boards moderate grades based on schools’ previous exam results. The 2020 cohort’s final results are subject to the influence of both region- and class-based assumptions, imposed consciously by moderators as well as unconsciously by teachers. Regardless of individual circumstances and efforts, pupils of the most deprived schools are being forced to accept lowered grades overall, whereas those from high-attaining schools are given an unfair advantage.
In an attempt to redress the balance, many universities make contextual offers to applicants, supposedly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, allowing them to attend with lower grades than the average offer. Contextual offers supposedly work as a ‘safety net’ for working-class students, securing them offers from more competitive universities. In fact, the methods of calculating eligibility for these lowered offers are flawed, often leading to pupils without disadvantage being approved instead of deprived candidates. The POLAR system is used to calculate the level of participation in higher education by area, rather than to look at an applicant’s individual circumstances, so a wealthy pupil in proximity to poor pupils may be approved for a contextual offer, and a poor pupil in proximity to wealthy pupils may not. Even though an applicant may live in social housing, an under-represented group in higher education, they are instead judged on the general level of advantage in their postcode. For instance, a pupil living in a council flat in the Lancaster West Estate (W11 1WJ), in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, would not be eligible for a lowered offer at most universities because they share the Kensington area with many more affluent residents. Elsewhere in west London, a more advantaged pupil living in their family’s privately-owned house bordering Hampton Common (TW13 6PD) could receive contextual offers of two grades below the standard offer at many universities.
Other measures of eligibility for contextual offers include attendance of schools which perform poorly in GCSEs and A levels or which have high proportions of students receiving free school meals. However, a student in receipt of free school meals does not automatically qualify, whereas a student attending a school with a high proportion of pupils receiving free school meals would, regardless of whether or not this applies to them directly. As well as being seriously flawed, the contextual offer system is badly publicised and rarely accessed by those in need of it, with many high-achieving disadvantaged students choosing to apply to universities with lower entry requirements instead.
In order to dismantle the barriers to accessing higher education that deprived young people face, it is necessary for the harmful system of predictive grading to be abolished, and for the ways in which eligibility for contextual offers are calculated to be extensively reformed. This year’s cohort of disadvantaged pupils has been unjustly treated, but this is just the latest chapter in the long history of British schooling limiting future options for the poorest and allowing continuous generations of the capitalist elite to stay on top of society.
Featured image credit: HarinathR
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