August’s Chart of the Month shows the proportion of English students in state-funded and independent schools who achieved A*-As, from 2014 to 2021. It highlights the pandemic’s impacts on education in the UK.
In March 2020, the government cancelled public exams. Students instead received a centre assessed grade, based on what they most likely would have achieved. Grade inflation would be mitigated by statistical methodologies based on past school performance, dubbed “the algorithm” by the press.
When results day came, many students were horrified to receive grades well below their expectations. After public outcry, the results were reverted to the original centre assessed grade.
In 2021, students received a teacher assessed grade. Schools would once again decide the fate of their students.
Ofqual, the UK’s exams regulator, knew that schools and colleges would be over-optimistic when setting grades. Yet, without exams, they were powerless to correct this. If a student had received a university offer, what right did the school have to deny that opportunity? Teachers were often willing to give students the benefit of the doubt, while schools were sanguine when moderating teacher assessed grades. Even small uplifts, combined across the country, would inevitably lead to an overall rise in grades.
Before the pandemic, the attainment gap between state and independent schools remained stable. From 2014-2019, 24 out of 100 state school pupils received A*-A grades. For independent schools, this was 47 out of 100.
The absolute gap between state and private institutions has increased. In August 2020, independent schools saw their proportion of A*-A grades rise to 60.8%. For state schools, results rose to 35.7%. This year, 70 out of 100 pupils from independent schools received A*-A in their A Levels. In state schools, only 39 out of 100 did.
Some have used these figures to claim that the pandemic has entrenched inequalities in educational outcomes. This is misleading. Our grey line shows that the relative gap between the private and state sector has fallen over time.
It is undoubtedly true that many pupils in state schools have fallen behind their private-school counterparts. However, this has been hidden in exam results. Teacher assessed grades have masked the educational inequalities caused by the pandemic.
Today’s Question of the Month:
“When, if ever, will we see the real effects of educational inequality? What impact might they have on future generations?”
Department for Education, (2021). Statistics: 16 to 19 attainment. Retrieved 2021-08-02, from https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/statistics-attainment-at-19-years
Data from 2019-2020 and 2020-2020 is labelled as “provisional” by the Department of Education. These will remain “provisional” indefinitely, as the exam data series has been cancelled: there will be no “checking/confirmation with schools and colleges.”