Some students ‘feel they haven’t had input’ into A-level grades – Ucas chief

Clare Marchant also confirmed she would support an “exploration” of a post-qualifications admissions system

Some students “feel they haven’t had input” into their calculated A-level grades, the chief executive for Ucas has said.

Ucas’s Clare Marchant was speaking ahead of A-level results day later this week; it was revealed by the Guardian on Friday that 39% of A-level grades submitted by teachers are set to be downgraded when exam results in England are published on Thursday 13 August.

A similar process of grade moderation in Scotland resulted in 124,000 grade recommendations being lowered by the Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA). In a dramatic U-turn, Scotland’s education minister, John Swinney, said all downgraded awards would be withdrawn and re-issued based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement.

During a webinar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), Ms Marchant told applicants that universities would be flexible with admissions decisions and not to worry if their results this Thursday are not as good as predicted. Universities minister Michelle Donelan has today written to universities to ask them to show flexibility towards this year’s applicants.

Although Ucas confirmed last week that a record number of Scottish students will access Scottish HE this year, “there is a tendency to forget the individual” when looking at the national statistics, Ms Marchant continued.

“Even if on a macro level, it looks good in terms of calculated grades – and even if on a macro level it looks good in terms of calculates grades for the most deprived – what does it mean for individuals who feel they haven’t had input to that calculated grade; I think that’s the biggest sentiment we’ve got coming out of last week.”

The English exams regulator, Ofqual, revealed in July that, had it not intervened to moderate teachers’ assigned grades, the number of A grades would have been 12.3 percentage points higher than last year.

Even if on a macro level, it looks good in terms of calculated grades – and even if on a macro level it looks good in terms of calculates grades for the most deprived – what does it mean for individuals who feel they haven’t had an input to that calculated grade; I think that’s the biggest sentiment we’ve got coming out of last week
Clare Marchant, Ucas

Hepi’s director, Nick Hillman, pressed the Ucas chief during the webinar on her organisation’s contribution to the admissions process this year. “Some people have said that Ucas’s predicted grade data, which you’re sitting on, could be part of the answer to many of these admission challenges, but you haven’t issued it. And why is that?”

Ms Marchant said her organisation does not have “unlimited capacity to publish everything” and was bound by privacy laws. She said many of the requests to share more data are “not in line with best practice”, because it could lead to students “being easily identified” and would “destroy their trust” in Ucas.

Ucas shares three million data points every year and had made a “huge effort” to increase the amount of data available, she added.

Ms Marchant also indicated Ucas supported sending more “contextual data” to universities to help them make admissions decisions; she also suggested that the personal statement and academic references needed “reform” so universities were more aware of individual students’ circumstances in future admission cycles.

The admissions service anticipates that the numbers going through clearing will increase by 10% this year, from 70,000 to 80,000. An Office for Students report released this January revealed a one percentage point difference in continuation rates for students placed through “other Ucas routes”, which includes primarily clearing, and those placed with A-levels via a conditional offer. Although recognising the need to monitor the statistical trend, Ms Marchant said Ucas’s Clearing Plus service could help to tackle this issue.

“If you’re getting a personalised match and expressing an interest proactively, I think that’s a very different experience than searching through nearly 30,000 courses and trying to weave your way through them. I’m hoping that personalised matching service will have an impact down the line in terms of the relationship between clearing students and their retention at university.”

Ms Marchant also revealed that she was committed to exploring the introduction of a post-qualification admissions system (PQA). Although the introduction of a PQA system was not “insurmountable”, Ms Marchant suggested she saw more value in a hybrid system that would allow students to apply before receiving their results but make firm decisions about their course and provider after results day. “I think we need to be careful that it is not a binary choice. There are lots of models in between [the present system and PQA] that don’t have as many unintended consequences,” she added.

A poll of 128 school, college and university leaders, published today by UCU, finds that more than 80% back exploring the introduction of a PQA system.


Read more: A-level results: comprehensive pupils more likely to be underpredicted, says research

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