Contextual offers would ease A-level students’ grade fears, says professor

Year 12 students are particularly concerned about a loss to teaching time caused by lockdown, new research reveals

A professor of social mobility has urged universities to review their policies on contextual offers and extenuating circumstances this year after a study revealed that the decision to replace A-level exams with predicted grades has left pupils feeling “powerless”.

The University of Exeter project was led by Anna Mountford-Zimdars, a professor of social mobility and the academic director of the Centre for Social Mobility, and Dr Sam Baars, the director of research and operations at the Centre for Education and Youth.

More than 2,200 teenagers took part in the rapid-response survey, which was conducted between 28th March and 20th April 2020. Respondents completed a Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale. Young people’s median wellbeing score was significantly lower than that of the general population under normal conditions, researchers discovered.

Over half of students (53%) disclosed concerns about their final grades; Year 13 candidates were particularly concerned about whether their results would reflect their actual ability. Those who are due to sit their A-level exams in 2021 were concerned their results next year would suffer as a result of the lockdown.

One Year 13 student told the researchers: “My biggest concern is that I won’t be able to achieve high grades as I have no control over how my grades are given, and I didn’t perform as well as I could have in previous mock exams, as I [had] other commitments.”

Academics involved in the study have called for the Department for Education to disseminate more advice and guidance on qualifications, including a campaign for those in year 13 so they can easily access information on grades, and the options available for appeals and resits.

The Equality Act Review published a report in June that warned predicted grades could negatively impact black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) pupils and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

The University and College Union published a report in 2016 by Dr Gill Wyness of the UCL Institute of Education that warned that only 16% of applicants achieved the A-level grade points that they were predicted to achieve, based on their best three A-levels.

“Among high-attaining students, applicants from low income backgrounds are significantly more likely to have their grades under-predicted than those from high-income backgrounds,” Prof Wyness’s report concluded.

The University of Exeter released a report in April that warned school closures during the coronavirus lockdown could leave disadvantaged children with “learning loss” of up to six months. Speaking after the release of the school closures report, Prof Lee Elliot Major said: “We are concerned about the impact on disadvantaged families, and it is likely during this period of lockdown some middle class children will have benefitted from extensive use of private tutoring, which will exacerbate education gaps further.

“We are also concerned poorer pupils are under-predicted in GCSEs and A-levels, and students due to take exams next year will struggle with learning losses, and being unable to attend university access schemes in person.”

‘Radical transparency’ needed on contextual offers

Prof Mountford-Zimdars told University Business that disadvantaged students’ concerns around A-level grades would ease if higher education providers took the opportunity to offer more ambitious contextual offers next year.

“So much is changing at the moment. Now is an important opportunity for universities to focus on their core values and what it is they are trying to achieve. This is an opportunity for a university to think how and who they want to teach; whose lives they want to transform. Universities should ask themselves if their contextual admissions policy is radical enough.”

Prof Mountford-Zimdars called on universities to offer applicants “radical transparency” on contextual offers so that students from widening participation backgrounds could be more aware of the courses available to them. Providers should also publish a “minimum preparedness” standard so that applicants could see the basic, essential requirements of degree courses.

The social mobility expert said that during clearing, universities routinely offer places to candidates with grades below the stated admission requirements; this last-minute lowering of entry standards demonstrated that courses could consider a wider pool of applicants earlier in the application cycle, she added..

During the survey, Prof Mountford-Zimdars learned of a university that had offered an applicant a contextual offer that was conditional on the student accepting the place as a firm choice. Practices such as this have not been prohibited by the recent OfS ban on ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, but could add to students’ fears about their A-level results.

Read more: OfS bans ‘conditional unconditional’ offers until September 2021


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