A-level results: Michelle Donelan asks universities to ‘extend some flexibility’

Students who confirm a university place as a result of a successful appeal will be exempt from student number cap

Forty-eight hours before A-level results day, universities minister Michelle Donelan has written to universities to ask them to show flexibility towards this year’s applicants.

In her letter to vice-chancellors today [11 August], Ms Donelan urged them to be flexible in their admissions. She also announced that students who successfully appealed their grades, and had a university place confirmed because of it, would be exempt from counting towards the student number controls announced on 1 June in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Universities should hold open places for students who are appealing their grades, “where possible”, and “take a holistic view, using a wider range of evidence, of an individual’s capability” when admitting students to courses.

Ofqual announced on 7 August that schools or colleges would be allowed to challenge A-level results if they could evidence that students were on-track to outperform previous cohorts. The move followed pressure from the shadow education secretary, NUS and several school leaders.

In light of this, Ms Donelan confirmed that exam boards “will prioritise cases that affect students’ progression” and are “committed to doing all that is possible to resolve appeals for affected candidates” by 7 September – the extended Ucas deadline for applicants to meet academic offer conditions.

“We expect the vast majority of grades to be accurate, but it is essential that we have this safety net for young people who may otherwise be held back from moving on to their chosen route,” said Ms Donelan’s letter.

“That is why I have decided to exempt certain students going through this process from the student number control. This will apply to students whose grades are subject to an appeal, where that appeal is successful, the student’s grades are increased, and they then meet conditions of the student’s offer. This exemption is limited to these circumstances only.”

I have decided to exempt certain students going through this process from the student number control – Michelle Donelan

Vice-chancellors have been asked to “play your part in helping the young people affected by the events of this summer. I ask that you extend some flexibility in your admissions decisions this year, wherever you can, to assist young people in moving on to their next steps.

“I am sure you will agree that it is important that we all take responsibility to do what we can to ensure that young people are not disadvantaged by the unique circumstances this year. I should be grateful therefore for your support in enabling students to progress wherever possible.”

The letter also confirmed that Ofqual’s chief regulator Sally Collier had contacted university admissions officers to explain its process for calculating grades this summer.

Ms Donelan’s letter follows an apology from Nicola Sturgeon yesterday [10 August] for the approach of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which downgraded about 125,000 estimates from teacher assessments.

The first minister said: “Our concern, which was to make sure the grades young people got were as valid as in any other year, perhaps led us to think too much about the overall system and not enough about the individual pupil.

“That has meant too many students feel they have lost out on grades they should have had, and that that has happened not as a result of anything they have done but a statistical model or algorithm.

“Despite our best intentions I do acknowledge that we did not get this right and I am sorry for that.”

However, she added: “We will not expect every student who has been downgraded to appeal”.

Scottish education secretary John Swinney is today [11 August] expected to announce how the government will resolve the problem.

With pressure growing on ministers ahead of A-level results day, education secretary Gavin Williamson defended the system.

“I’m confident the system Ofqual has put in place is fundamentally a fair one, that will award the vast majority of students a calculated grade that genuinely reflects the grade they would have achieved. Provisional data published by Ofqual suggests that the number of As and A*s being awarded will increase compared to last year and moderation has ensured students from all backgrounds have been treated fairly.

“We know that, without exams, even the best system is not perfect. That is why I welcome the fact that Ofqual has introduced a robust appeal system, so every single student can be treated fairly – and today we are asking universities to do their part to ensure every young person can progress to the destination they deserve.”

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