A Level algorithm will entrench regional disparities and widen North-South divide, it is claimed

A computer algorithm used to hand out grades to pupils whose A-level exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis has entrenched regional disparities and widened the attainment gap, it has been alleged.

The largest fall in the proportion of students awarded A-level grades of C and above after moderation yesterday was recorded within those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some 85.0 per cent of candidates classed as having a “low” socio-economic status by exam regulator Ofqual had been predicted to achieve a C and above by their schools.

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This fell to 74.6 per cent once final grades were calculated under this year’s new moderation process introduced due to the coronavirus – a drop of 10.4 percentage points.

A Level Results at The Crossley Heath School, Halifax.Photo: Bruce RollinsonA Level Results at The Crossley Heath School, Halifax.Photo: Bruce Rollinson
A Level Results at The Crossley Heath School, Halifax.Photo: Bruce Rollinson

By contrast, the proportion of students from the least deprived backgrounds, or “high” socio-economic status, awarded a C and above fell by 8.3 percentage points during the process, from 89.3 per cent to 81.0 per cent.

The difference has led to teachers and political figures calling for a review of the system, after nearly 40 per cent of pupils’ estimated A-level grades were brought down by exam boards.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has warned the exams regulator for England that it must consider the “equality impacts” of its actions in any decisions it takes concerning A-levels.

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Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership lobbying group said: “We are concerned that the Ofqual algorithm may well have entrenched regional disparities, based largely on the high concentration of long-term disadvantaged students and specifically ethnic groups who often perform less well on average, such as white working class young people, in schools which in a significant number of cases have been improving quickly.”

He said the number of A and A* grades was already weighted heavily towards London when compared with any of the three northern regions, but that gap had widened this year.

He added: “We are working to close the educational divide between North and South. The gap in attainment being widened without final examinations being set strikes us as evidence of potential issues with the operation of the algorithm used by Ofqual, which will potentially give grounds for schools in the North to make an additional challenge to current results in the appeals process.”

But Ofqual said there was no evidence “bias” had been introduced into the moderation system and that differences between the change in predicted and final results was “relatively similar” across all socio-economic groups.

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The regulator said it was “difficult to draw firm conclusions” over the relationship between deprivation and grade adjustment.

It also noted that research suggested that teachers had a tendency to “overestimate to a greater extent the grades of socio-economically disadvantaged students”.

But Hull West and Hessle MP Emma Hardy, who is also a shadow education minister, said: “The government has created A level results chaos, that particularly threatens the social mobility and aspiration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Figures showed standalone sixth forms and further education colleges did particularly badly under the moderation system, as figures published by Ofqual showed the number of A grades and above rose by 4.7 percentage points at private schools compared to 2019, while state sixth-form and further education colleges saw a rise of just 0.3 percentage points.

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Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), said the Government’s model for calculating this year’s grades was “flawed and unreliable”.

While the Association of Colleges (AoC) has written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to call for an urgent review into the standardisation process.

The letter said: “We cannot stand by when the evidence suggests that many thousands of students may have missed out on their grades because of a systemic bias.”

Ms Hardy said: “Results have been based on the past performance of schools rather than the work of individual pupils and we’ve seen the downgrading of 40 per cent of results by one grade or more. This is totally unfair. It has hit high performing students in lower performing schools the hardest and benefited pupils who attend private schools.”

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Mr Williamson has ruled out a U-turn such as that seen in Scotland, where pupils have now been awarded the grades predicted by their teachers.

Mr Williamson’s former politics lecturer at Scarborough Sixth Form College, Peter Ashton, told LBC that algorithm systems are “not a very good idea” as they tend to disadvantage high-achieving pupils in low-performing schools.

Asked on Nick Ferrari’s radio show whether his former lecturer was right, Mr Williamson said: “Mr Ashton is always correct.

“There is sometimes a danger where you have an exceptionally high-performing child in a low-performing school to be in a situation where they don’t get the grades that they want to.

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“What we’ve asked the exam boards is, where they think there may be outliers, is actually to be contacting the schools to talk with them to make sure that appeals are put forward.

But he ruled out further changes to the grading system in the face of any exams backlash, as Labour called for the cost of any appeals to be scrapped.

Boris Johnson said that the exam results published today are "robust" and "dependable".

He said: "Well let me first of all say that I want to congratulate all the students who have worked so hard to get the grades that they have and have done so well.

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"And let's be in no doubt about it, the exam results that we've got today are robust, they're good, they're dependable for employers, but already I think that there's a record number of candidates, of students, who are able to get their first choice course at the university of their choice.

"Plus, there's a record number of students, of pupils, from disadvantaged backgrounds who now as a result of these grades, will be able to go to university."

But Anna Round, senior research fellow at the IPPR North think tank, said: “The task of awarding A level grades this year was always going to be difficult, especially for an education system that relies heavily on final exams.

“But that difficulty shouldn’t hit disadvantaged students the hardest. Nor should it hit regions where rates of disadvantage are high, which includes much of the North.

“A difference of one grade looks very small on a graph but it’s a game changer for the student who misses out on a university or training place.”