As A-level students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland open their results today, it is fascinating to see how the public dissemination of the success is reaching a growing audience through news streaming and to social media, where constant posting and commenting will dominate the news for the next few days.
Images of young people literally jumping for joy make the headlines, and exam results data are closely questioned. Data analysis is usually based on success rates and whether they have increased or decreased; every year there are questions that challenge our confidence in the so-called benchmark exam, as A-levels have the potential to open doors for (some) young people.
A record number of 18-year-olds (18,900 students) from England’s most disadvantaged backgrounds have been accepted into university this year; in Northern Ireland and Wales there are also increases.
But another story lurks behind all these discussions: Not all students will necessarily reach their academic potential in school. It is not because they are lazy or unintelligent; the truth is more complex and boils down to social class. While some commentators might scoff at the accommodations made for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, the reality is that without a conceived opportunity, these young people will not have the chance to see if they can do more. Equal opportunity is not enough, we need fairness.
Theodore Agnew, the Conservative Minister for Schools in the House of Lords, told a private schools conference in May: “Why do we let kids go to college with three Es at A level? It’s madness ”. At first glance, the decision to make early and unconditional offers to those with such profiles may seem perverse, but these young people do not enter the system on an equal footing with the majority of their peers. Not all disadvantaged youth score this low, but some research suggests they are more likely to have lower grades, which lowers expectations.
English universities have been forced to reposition themselves as a source of income in a competitive education market and they compete fiercely each year to attract students. Students are so valuable that more unconditional offers are made earlier each year and students are coaxed into accepting a firm offer (to the exclusion of all others). It is underprivileged students who are more likely to receive hardcore offers and, with an offer in the bag, this seems to hamper their motivation to aim for higher grades.
Why is it a problem? Because this is another potential suppressor; this young person may have performed better than expected, and had different opportunities available to him, or more options in terms of course or institution.
While an increase in the number of disadvantaged students being offered university places is to be welcomed, it should not be assumed that the work of widening participation is done. Much of the rhetoric about exam scores has to do with future economic prosperity: good A-level scores will provide better leverage towards sustainable employment. However, entering university is just the start for disadvantaged young people and once in university they face more challenges.
Disadvantaged students are more likely to drop out of classes, due to the financial burden of studying and social and / or cultural barriers. I have seen this regularly for 10 years teaching at a new university in London. The majority of my undergraduates were from disadvantaged backgrounds. They attempted to undertake a degree with little support from their families, limited funds and often with poor housing or while struggling to raise a young family on their own. Only one of these variables is problematic, but combine two or more and it’s no surprise that even the brightest underprivileged young people lose the motivation and strength to complete their education at degree level.
If the government is truly determined to continue the policy of widening participation, it must also ensure that disadvantaged young people receive realistic financial and practical support during their studies.
After graduation, other challenges await many students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it is here that other forms of disadvantage emerge. We know that graduates who were entitled to free school meals (FSM) are more likely to be unemployed after graduation, but they are also likely to be in lower paying jobs than their affluent peers and this pay gap is not diminishing. . State of the Nation Study Data for 2018-19 reveals: “Five years after graduation, students who had been eligible for the WSF were paid an average of 11.5% less than their peers.
But that’s not all. Today it was heartening to see how successful young women are in all fields, and in particular, their increased success in science subjects, which is due in large part to national campaigns such as Wise. More and more women are entering careers in postgraduate subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but they still face broader discrimination than their male counterparts once in office and are likely, over the course of their career. life, to earn less.
A levels are a barrier – they are a test passed at a specific time. They do not define who you are, or even exactly what you are capable of, either now or in the future. However, they are an integral part of how our young people make decisions at a critical point in their lives and their outcome has a big impact on their chances in life. We need to talk about fairness, and we need to keep talking about fairness.
Dr Mary Richardson is Associate Professor of Educational Assessment at the UCL Institute of Education