Are we treating A-level students fairly?

Chris Jeffery, Head of Bootham School, discusses whether the university selection process is placing undue pressure on A-level students

As the noise, emotion and confusion of A-Level results day begins to die down, I find myself sitting at my desk in a quiet school mulling one particular growing and troubling trend that deserves greater exposure.

Over the past three years in the two schools in which I have been Head, a growing number of students have been awarded places on their firm or insurance choice university courses despite not having achieved the grades they were allegedly required to get. Several have secured their first-choice course, despite missing their offer by two or more grades. This year almost a quarter of our applicants missed out on required grades but still got a chosen place, even in highly competitive areas such as Medicine, Law and Vet Science. Most of those got their first choice, and most had missed by two grades. Who knows what grades the many others who did achieve their offers actually really needed to have got? It’s a pattern seen in schools throughout the country.

The effects of a system that now habitually ‘offers high’ but ‘accepts lower’ are significant and really not justifiable

On the surface, this would appear to be a good thing, and I rejoice wholeheartedly with those who have got where they wanted to be for the next stage in their educational adventure. But when one looks beneath that surface, it soon becomes clear that this is really not a fair way to treat young people who are doing arguably the most important exams of their lives. The effects of a system that now habitually ‘offers high’ but ‘accepts lower’ are significant and really not justifiable.

Underlying these circumstances are economic and market forces, of course. The lifting of the admissions cap on universities means that they have created more places to increase income, which they now need to fill to secure the funding they need. Facing falling demographics, uncertainty among foreign students in post-referendum times, poor press on graduate employment opportunities and abiding economic fears, it appears that the number of students available to fill those places has fallen. That has created a ‘buyers’ market’.

Thus, the simple laws of supply and demand might dictate that the ‘price’ of entry onto a course (i.e. the grades that universities and individual departments say they require students to get) would fall.

Not a bit of it.

With the exception of an increase in the number of unconditional places being offered, there has been no discernible drop in entry requirements for good university places; AAA or AAB remain the most common offers for my students. I understand why: university departments want to attract the brightest and best students, and one easy way of doing that is using high entry tariffs to make courses look prestigious and sought after. It’s a logical extension of the higher education ‘market’ created by previous government policy and the tuition fees system.

But what does this mean for the young people I care for?

In short, it means that most are under huge pressure to gain grades to secure their desired place that they don’t, in reality, need to get. It means that many are being set up for a fall, as achieving the required grades may well be a bridge too far for some of them, and results day is, at best, one of very conflicting emotions. More importantly, it means that youngsters, already coping with the well documented struggles of modern teenage life, as well as the botched introduction of a new exam system, have been subjected to an unnecessary and unjustifiable additional burden of pressure. And before anyone thinks it, I’m not suggesting for a moment that students shouldn’t be encouraged or prodded into doing as well as they can; they really should…but not like this!

Is it right that young people -their welfare and the mental health- are paying the price for a university selection and admissions system that is broken and not fit for purpose?

A further concern struck me forcibly in a conversation with the Registrar of a top UK university, who observed that a disproportionate number of the rising number of mental health cases among undergraduates at that university was made up of students who had missed their offers but still been offered a place. Some arrived already feeling that they were not good enough; that they were, somehow, imposters.

Is it right that young people -their welfare and the mental health- are paying the price for a university selection and admissions system that is broken and not fit for purpose; a system that pays little attention to the welfare of applicants and is not prepared to respond to market forces?

And isn’t it about time that students were able to apply to universities with the grades they have achieved, not predicted grades? Surely between all the bright people in our schools and universities it would be possible to set up a system that worked for universities and young people.

Shouldn’t we do better for our children?

For more information about Bootham School, visit their website.

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