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Universities bank on foreign currency

By Blog editor, on 29 January 2024

by Professor Gill Wyness and Professor Lindsey Macmillan

This weekend, we woke up to the news that reporters from the Sunday Times had discovered that some of the UK’s top universities are allowing international students into degree programmes with lower grades than UK students.

While at first glance, this sounds grossly unfair and very much against CEPEO’s mantra of equalising opportunities, others have pointed out that this isn’t ‘news’: these are ‘foundation year’ programmes that are designed to help students with lower grades get access degrees by taking a year-long course to prepare them for entry.

While the details around this are still a little murky (why does the international agent in the Sunday Times video promise guaranteed entry to second year? And why do these programmes appear to have 100% conversion rates onto degree programmes?), it has brought the perilous state of UK university finances to the forefront.

At the heart of this issue is the UK universities’ reliance on tuition fees from international students to balance the books.

The majority of universities’ teaching resources come from tuition fees, though they also receive some teaching grant from the government. However, the tuition fee cap has been frozen (apart from a small increase of £250) since 2012. This means that in real terms, it has been cut by around a fifth over the last ten years. Recent IFS analysis showed that per-student resources for teaching home students have declined by 16% since 2012.

Against this backdrop, international students are very attractive to universities. Their fees are unregulated, and universities typically set them at much higher levels than those for domestic students, meaning they provide huge amounts of much-needed income, particularly in tough times.

Crowding out or crowding in?

While it has long been the case that universities have used money from international students to subsidise UK students, it is reasonable to be concerned that increasing reliance on international students may result in ‘crowding out’, where talented UK students are denied a place on a course because that place has gone to a more lucrative, foreign student. But there is little evidence of this.

Research by CEPEO affiliate Richard Murphy, alongside Steve Machin, studied this question for the UK system between 1994-2011, a time of rapid internationalisation of the UK HE sector. Their study found no evidence that UK undergraduates were crowded out by international students. They also found evidence that postgraduates (whose numbers – like undergraduates under today’s system – are unrestricted) were ‘crowded in’ by foreign students. In other words, their work showed that foreign students provide much needed subsidies to the UK sector, and that without them, even fewer places would be available to UK students.

The evidence from this year also shows little evidence of crowding out; an interrogation of UCAS data from 2023 reveals that of students (under age 21) applying to all UK universities, 354,450 were from England, 28,010 were from Scotland, 15,560 were from Wales, and 14,650 from Northern Ireland. This compares to 82,760 from non-EU countries, and a further 18,810 from the EU. Thus, students from abroad make up about one fifth of total numbers.

This proportion has remained constant since 2018 – while the share of non-EU students has risen from 11% to 16% over the period, the share of EU students has fallen from 8% to 4%.  Thus, it seems that UK universities are simply replacing EU students (who, as a result of Brexit, have faced higher fees from 2021 and are no longer eligible for fee loans) with non-EU students.

Out of options?

While these numbers may provide some reassurance on the issue of UK students being frozen out of the sector, there is no doubt that more funding for domestic students is urgently needed – particularly given demand from UK students is likely to increase even further in the next few years due to increasing participation and the population surge currently working its way through the secondary education system.

Figure 1: Pupil numbers in education

 

Source: Figure 3.1b) from IFS Annual report on education spending

However, this is politically and economically very tricky. Raising the tuition fee cap would be deeply unpopular with the electorate, given the cost-of-living crisis. A recent report by Public First found that a sizeable portion of the population still support the idea of fee abolition, although this declines when the economics of paying for this are explained in more detail. But the vast majority of respondents were opposed to the idea of increasing tuition fees.

Figure 2: Polling on support for changes to tuition fees

Source: Public First report on Public Attitudes to tuition fees

The alternative – injecting cash into the sector through raising the government teaching grant – would be extremely expensive, so is also unlikely to fly at a time of significant fiscal constraints.

In short, there are very few options available to the government, meaning reliance on overseas students is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Class of 2023: (some of) the kids are alright

By Blog editor, on 17 August 2023

By Gill Wyness, Lindsey Macmillan, and Jake Anders

Today marks the first ‘true’ A level and Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VTQs) exam results since the more innocent days of 2019. Although pupils sat exams in 2022, their results were adjusted by Ofqual’s “glide path” which aimed to move results gradually back to pre-pandemic exam grading following the grade inflation of 2020 and 2021. So, a comparison of todays’ results versus 2019 should provide information about the extent of learning loss experienced during the pandemic. And the results present a bleak picture for inequality in England.

Back to the future?

Overall, the proportion of pupils awarded a C or above at A level is more or less back to 2019 levels. This is perhaps grounds for optimism; these students have had a very different learning experience compared to their peers in 2019. They experienced a global pandemic, and severe disruption to their schooling in critical years – as Figure 1 shows. In addition, this cohort did not sit GCSE exams, so lack that crucial experience of performing under pressure that previous cohorts have had.

Figure 1: Timeline of the Class of 2023

However, there is much less cause for optimism when we look at inequalities in the results. At the moment, these are only available across school types, and regions.

Mind the gap

Looking first at inequalities by school type, the gap between academies and independent schools has widened since 2019. The proportion awarded a C or above is down slightly in academies (75.4% in 2023 versus 75.7% in 2019) whilst it is up in independent schools (89% versus 88%). This represents a 1.3 percentage point increase in the state-independent gap, which now stands at 13.6 percentage points. For the top grades (A and above), the independent-state gap has widened slightly more, to 1.4 percentage points.

We already know that students from these different school types had very different schooling and learning experiences during the pandemic. Figure 2, from CEPEO’s COSMO Study, highlights the disparity in learning provision experienced by students from different school types during the pandemic. The disparities in A level performance that we see today are yet more confirmation that these students did not experience the disruption of the pandemic equally.

Figure 2: Provision of live online lessons, by school characteristics, lockdown 1 and 3

There are also notable inequalities across region. In particular, (and as was the case last year), London and the South East continue to pull away from all other regions with the largest increase in the proportion achieving A/A* since 2019, and some of the smallest declines relative to last year’s cohort. Meanwhile, the North East and Yorkshire and Humber are the only regions with a lower proportion achieving A/A* compared to 2019.

Competitor advantage

As discussed, it is harder to make comparisons between today’s results and last years, because 2022 results were adjusted by Ofqual’s glide path. However, for pupils receiving their results today, the 2022 cohort are their closest competitors in terms of higher education (gap year students) and more crucially the labour market, so for them, the comparison really matters.

Overall, results are down from 2022; this isn’t surprising and is part of the glide-path strategy. However, inequalities here are concerning; for C or above, the academy-private gap is up 3.8 ppts compared to 2022.

Among the highest attainers (A/A*), the story is more nuanced. Compared to last year’s cohort the state-private gap has narrowed (1ppt). Remember private schools had far more grade inflation at the top of the distribution when exams were switched to Teacher Assessed Grades in 2021, as figure 3 clearly shows. That they have failed to maintain this stark advantage among top grades suggests some of the record grades awarded over the pandemic were likely down to teacher ‘optimism’. But as mentioned above, the gap among high attainers is up since 2019, therefore also reflecting the better quality of learning experienced by private school students during the lockdowns.

Figure 3: Teacher ‘optimism’ across school types

Subjective scrutiny

Comparing subjects that are more or less objective to assess can also tell us something about how meaningful the results of 2020 and 2021 might be. For example, if we compare results for maths – arguably an easier subject for teachers to grade in their assessments – with drama, we see just how problematic the teacher predicted/assessed grades of 2020 and 2021 were.

 

Figure 4: Grades by maths and drama

The forgotten 378,000

Of course today isn’t just about A levels – a sizeable proportion of the Class of 2023 – over 378,000 students – took Level 3 vocational and technical qualifications. There is far less data available on these qualifications to provide any real depth of analysis – an issue in itself.

Following a similar pattern to A levels, higher attainment grades for level 3 qualifications are: – up relative to 2019 (at distinction or above), and down relative to 2022 (at merit or above)

Many have pointed out the worrying dropout rates of those taking T levels (the new, technical-level qualification which were launched in 2020) – although it’s important to note that these currently make up only a tiny fraction of vocational and technical qualifications. Of those who did complete, 90% passed with girls outperforming boys at higher levels.

Inequalities persist

In summary then, today’s results present a mixed picture for young people in England. On the one hand, results are back to the pre-Covid heyday, but inequalities are wider, and this again emphasises the inequalities in experiences during the pandemic. These will likely persist well into the labour market – a feature that our COSMO study will track well into the future. Look out for more bleak news to come. This should be a timely reminder to those making education spending decisions in Whitehall for future cohorts.

Social mobility scorecards for universities

By Blog Editor, on 6 June 2023

Oliver Cassagneau-Francis

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy priorities each week. This post makes the case for why we should introduce an official “Social Mobility Scorecard” for universities. This would both act as an incentive to those universities who are failing to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to recognise others who are a positive force for social mobility.

Graduates earn more money and enjoy better employment prospects than non-graduates, among other benefits. Governments know this, and so a key policy focus has been to encourage more young people, particularly those from less-advantaged backgrounds, to attend university. This is seen as a way to improve social mobility: put disadvantaged young people through a process that the evidence suggests can elevate people to be among the advantaged in society. And it works for some. However, “university” encompasses a wide range of institutions with wildly varying returns. Recent research in the UK has shown that returns can be as high as 35% for the universities with the highest financial rewards, falling to -5% for those with the lowest returns. So, securing high returns is not just about graduating – from where you graduate matters a lot too.

This issue is particularly relevant for the impact of pro-social mobility policies aimed at higher education. Are disadvantaged students attending the universities whose students get the best returns? Recent evidence suggests they’re not – the “best” universities and subjects are doing pretty badly at admitting less-advantaged young people. Students from the most disadvantaged groups were 100 times less likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge (two of the best-performing universities in terms of returns) than students from private schools.

This is where social mobility scorecards could make a difference. To ensure the “best” universities are not cherry-picking advantaged students (who would likely go on to do well anyway), and to reward those universities helping the most disadvantaged students, we need a public record of how universities are doing with regard to social mobility.

These scorecards are inspired by the Social Mobility Foundation’s “Social Mobility Employer Index” which appears to improve both practice and reporting around social mobility of the employers involved. Going a step further and making university scorecards official government releases will increase their traction among policymakers and other stakeholders, and ensure all universities take them seriously. There is evidence that publishing key information does hold educational institutions to account – for example, abolishing school league tables in Wales led to a 3.3 percentage point fall in the percentage of students achieving at least five GCSEs at A*-C (the key published measure) relative to schools in England (where league tables were not abolished).

Following the lead of researchers in the US, researchers at the IFS have already produced a one-off version of these scorecards – showing that the data required is readily available. They calculate a “mobility rate” for each university, which is the share of students from low-SES backgrounds (“access rate”) multiplied by the share of low-SES graduates who are in the top 20% of earners at age 30 (“success rate”). These calculations led to the damning results for Oxbridge reported earlier. However, there are also some positive findings. London-based universities do particularly well on this metric, mainly driven by their high access rates, with Queen Mary, University of London topping the overall ranking of mobility rates at 6.8%. There is no correlation between the average labour market returns at a university (i.e., wages) and mobility rates, highlighting the need for these scorecards in addition to already available metrics.

Officially publishing these mobility rates regularly (alongside other related statistics) would not only hold the most-selective universities to account regarding their poor performance on this metric, but would also highlight the important contribution of many less prestigious universities to society through their role in improving social mobility. This would be an important step towards ensuring that higher education is a positive force for social mobility, and why we’ve chosen to make it one of CEPEO’s policy priorities.

Persistent absenteeism: Who is missing school since the pandemic?

By Blog Editor, on 1 June 2023

Xin Shao, Jake Anders, and Lindsey Macmillan

Since the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a worrying rise in school absence rates, raising concerns about the detrimental impact on young people’s education. This is a key reason that tackling absence is one of CEPEO’s policy priorities — including better understanding its root causes.

The latest attendance data from the Department for Education (DfE) show that absence rates remain significantly higher than before the pandemic. Missing school can have negative impacts on pupils’ outcomes including educational attainment, wellbeing and wider development. However, as yet there is very little robust evidence about which pupils are most likely to be absent from school since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the potential reasons for this absence.

Improving our understanding of the main challenges to school attendance is important so that effective, targeted policies can be developed to tackle this issue. In this blog post, we provide new evidence on some key drivers of school absences, including providing empirical analysis of qualitative reasons raised in the recent inquiry by House of Commons Education Committee into persistent absence. We use data from the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), one of the only studies available to look at this issue, by tracking a cohort of young people currently in Year 13 (or equivalent) whose education has been significantly affected by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DfE’s definition of a persistent absentee is “a pupil having 46 or more sessions of absence (authorised or unauthorised) during the academic year, around 15% of overall absence.” We define persistent absence here as whether pupils met this criterion during their Year 11 in academic year 2020/21. Schools fully reopened at the start of this academic year following the initial disruption of the pandemic, however in-person schooling was suspended again during the third national lockdown, from 4 January 2021 until 8 March.

A picture of persistent absence in COSMO

About 10% of our sample met the definition of persistent absentees. But this overall rate masks important variation associated with the challenges that young people are facing in their lives. There are important differences in persistent absence by socio-economic background and food poverty, demographics, mental health experiences, and SEND status.

Pupils who are eligible for FSM were 14 percentage points more likely than non-FSM eligible pupils to be persistently absent from school (Figure 1), indicating that pupils from disadvantaged family backgrounds are more likely to have school attendance problems.

Figure 1. Percentage of persistent absentees by FSM eligibility

 

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. FSM eligibility over the last 6 years. N = 8,774.

Persistent absenteeism also varies significantly by household food poverty (Figure 2). Pupils living in households who have suffered from hunger were 13 percentage points more likely to persistently absent from school, compared to those living in households that did not experience hunger. Pupils from families who used a food bank were 18 percentage points more likely to be persistent absentees (Figure 3), compared to their peers whose families never used a food bank.

Figure 2. Percentage of persistent absentees by food poverty in households

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 6,297.

 

Figure 3. Percentages of persistent absentees by food bank usage

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 6,220.

Boys are slightly more likely than girls to be persistently absent from school (Figure 4), while differences by ethnicity are somewhat larger, with White pupils more likely than other ethnic groups to be persistent absentees (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Percentage of persistent absentees by gender

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 8,563.

Figure 5. Percentage of persistent absentees by ethnicity

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N= 8,686.

Pupils facing challenges with their mental health were also more likely to be persistently absent from school, compared to those do not have mental health problems (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Percentages of persistent absentees by high psychological distress

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. High psychological distress defined using a score of 4 or above in the General Health Questionnaire, GHQ-12. N = 8,508.

Even starker is the inequality in persistent absence by pupils’ Special Educational Needs (SEN) status. Students with SEN status were 21 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent from school than those without SEN status (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Percentages of persistent absentees by SEN

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. SEN = Special Educational Needs. N = 8,772.

 

Key drivers of persistent absenteeism

While there are stark differences in persistent absenteeism across socio-economic background, mental health experiences and SEN status, these factors are likely to be related to each other, so we could be seeing the same underlying difference in multiple ways. We can therefore consider changes in the probability of persistent absence related to each of these factors, while holding the others fixed, and comparing otherwise similar pupils in terms of family background (parental education and occupation) and prior attainment.

Figure 8 shows the probability of being persistent absentees from each particular group, including those pupils living in a household that used a food bank, having SEN status, and being at elevated risk of psychological distress, relative to those pupils not in each of these groups, but with similar prior attainment, and similarly educated parents, working in similar occupations.

Pupils whose family needed to use foodbanks were over 5 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent, even compared to pupils who had similar family backgrounds and prior attainment, but whose family didn’t need to use foodbanks. Similarly, pupils who had SEN status were over 10 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent than pupils without SEN status but otherwise similar. Pupils facing mental health challenges were over 2 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent than otherwise similar pupils not facing high psychological distress levels. Each of these factors feature heavily in qualitative reports of school absenteeism beyond a breakdown of the social contract between parents and schools, and do not fit the caricature of a school truant who is missing school simply because they don’t feel like turning up.

 

Figure 8. Change in probability of pupils living in households that used a food bank, pupils with SEN status and pupils with high psychological distress being persistently absent from school, relative to their otherwise similar peers

Notes. Reporting change in probability (marginal effects). N = 4,387; Residual Degrees of Freedom: 2456. The model also includes gender, ethnicity, parental education, parental occupational status, and Key Stage 2 prior attainment; SEN = Special Educational Needs

 

Moving beyond standard approaches to absenteeism?

Understanding rates of persistent absenteeism, beyond a breakdown of the social contact between parents and schools, is crucial for tackling the issue. Building on existing qualitative evidence, we show substantial differences in experiences associated with financial instability, mental health, and pupils’ SEN status, over and above young people’s demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. This highlights the potential to tackle a number of these factors directly to alleviate possible reasons for young people not attending school.

In particular, reviewing eligibility for free school meals to help lessen the pressure on families struggling to provide food for everyone in the family, or who are having to organise their lives accessing food banks in a way that may be disruptive to children’s education, appears an important factor. Similarly, ensuring that schools have the funding and capacity to support SEN pupils so that they can attend school is likely to be another way to reduce persistent absenteeism. Finally, these findings again highlight the importance of mental health support for young people, both for its own sake, but also because mental health challenges appear to be negatively affecting young people’s ability to engage with their education.

Notes

Aspects of the analysis use administrative data from the Department for Education (DfE)’s National Pupil Database (NPD), where consent was gained for this linkage (73% of young people), with additional weighting carried out to ensure (insofar as is possible) representativeness of analysis using linked administrative data. This work was produced using statistical data from the DfE processed in the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Secure Research Service (SRS). The use of the DfE statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the DfE or ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets, which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly referred to this absence as being during this cohort’s Year 12 (academic year 2021/22), rather than their Year 11 (academic year 2020/21).

Why we should introduce a post-qualification applications (PQA) system for post-18 education

By Blog Editor, on 27 April 2023

Gill Wyness

The UK is the only country in the world in which young people make their university applications before they have received their exam results. Instead, pupils apply to university with grades that have been predicted by their teachers.

The problem is predicted grades aren’t always accurate. Analysis of UCAS data has shown that only 16% of applicants achieve the A-level grades they were predicted to achieve, while 75% of students are over-predicted. The same research showed that among equally high attaining students, disadvantaged students receive less generous predictions compared to more advantaged students, highlighting that there are systematic differences in predicted grades across student groups.

Teacher predicted grades have always been controversial, but were thrown into the spotlight during the pandemic, when exams were cancelled, and teacher predictions were pupils’ only means of proving their achievement levels. Of course, there will always be some degree of error in predicting student grades. Research has shown that even when relying on machine learning and advanced statistical techniques, it is only possible to accurately predict the grades of 1 in 4 students from their attainment in previous years and characteristics. This demonstrates that teachers are certainly not to blame for inaccuracies in predicted grades, and also highlights that this difficult and time-consuming task may not be an ideal use of their limited resources. But it also demonstrates that we cannot simply shift the responsibility of the assignment of predicted grades away from them easily.

The fact that there are systematic errors in predicted grades is important. Predicted grades are an integral process of students’ decision-making, being the main piece of evidence they submit to university courses. The fact that high attaining disadvantaged students and state school students receive less generous grades than their more advantaged and independent school counterparts is likely to have consequences for their decisions on which courses to apply to. High attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to ‘undermatch’ and enter courses which are less selective than expected, given their grades, which leads to higher chances of dropping out, receiving a lower class degree, and earning less in the future.

The alternative to teacher predicted grades, used by every other major education system worldwide, is a post-qualification application (PQA) system. This would allow students to make university applications after they have taken their A-level exams and received their results. This system would be more accurate, fairer, and bring the UK in line with the rest of the world in allowing students to make these life changing application decisions based on full information.

It is possible to move towards PQA with minimum disruption to the current education system. Two proposals for achieving this are as follows: the first option would be to condense the final exam period to 4 weeks, and accelerate exam marking to 7-8 weeks. Examinations would take place in early May. Students would return to school afterwards, receiving their results in mid-July, in time for an in-school ‘applications week’. Universities would then have a month to process and make offers at the end of August, and students would have a short time to accept their favoured choice.

A second option would be to shorten the school summer holidays, allowing pupils to sit their exams and receive their grades during term time, and then make their university applications before the school holidays begin. Alternatively, first year university students could start later, giving them more time to process applications. We outline these options in more detail in a previous blog post.

We cannot ignore the flaws of a system that grants and denies young people the opportunity to have full information on their achievement levels before making such important and life-changing decisions. Put simply, if we were starting from scratch, no-one would design a system like this one. Young people deserve the chance to have their applications assessed in light of their actual achievements.

Should we abolish personal statements from the university application process?

By Blog Editor, on 19 April 2023

By Dominic Kelly and Gill Wyness

Background

The personal statement – a key element of the university admissions process – has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. The main criticism levied at the personal statement concerns fairness:  students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have fewer extra-curricular experiences to highlight in their personal statements and are less likely to have access to high quality advice and guidance when writing their statement.

So, it is welcome news that UCAS recently announced the personal statement is to be reformed, by replacing the free text personal statement into a structured format consisting of six short questions. While these reforms may address some of the fairness issues that many are concerned about, these reforms do not go far enough, and a better solution would be to abolish the personal statement altogether.

What’s the problem with personal statements?

Under the current rules, students applying to university through the UCAS system must submit a personal statement alongside their educational attainment (based on predicted A-level or equivalent grades). The personal statement is a free-text essay, with no specific question, just some loose advice, and a word limit of 4,000 characters. The essay is automatically sent to all the courses an applicant applies to.

There are three key reasons personal statements have been criticised – that they may favour students from more advantaged backgrounds, that they may not be great predictors of ability, and that they may put candidates under unnecessary stress.

Looking first at whether personal statements favour more advantaged students, research examining large samples of personal statements (Jones, 2012, 2013, 2015) revealed clear differences between the statements of independent/selective school applicants and those from non-selective state schools. Independent/selective school pupils had access to many more work experience opportunities to discuss, which were also broader and more diverse. The extreme differences in the extra-curricular activities that those from higher SES backgrounds have has been recently documented by Park et al (2023) whose study of US college applicants found that White, Asian American, higher SES, and private school students listed more extra-curricular activities, reported more top-level leadership roles, and reported more activities reflecting accomplishments and distinctions. Importantly, among those who listed undertaking an activity, Black and low SES students were just as likely to list having played a leadership role in the activity, suggesting that disadvantaged students are just as likely to have leadership qualities, but simply have less resources available to try different activities.

As well as having a wider range of experiences to draw from, the statements of independent school pupils were also longer, and contained fewer spelling errors and punctuation errors. One reason this may be the case is that independent school pupils may receive more guidance and assistance in writing their statements. There is some evidence for this. A study on 16- to 19-year-olds’ efficacy at ‘selling themselves’ in personal statements suggested that this was directly related to differences in resources and training provided by their educational institutions. It is also likely that those from richer backgrounds would be more able to take advantage of private consultancies to help them craft their statements, as they do with personal tutoring, for example.   A 2009 Guardian article reported evidence of independent school pupils receiving more help with personal statements, with a teacher admitting “of course we help our students with their personal statements, their parents are paying £7,000 a term!”

Turning to the usefulness of personal statements as a way to assess candidates, there are a small number of papers examining this issue. For example a small meta-analysis showed that ratings of personal statements were poor predictors of academic achievement, over and above standardised test scores and prior attainment. Arguments have also been made that rather than functioning as a holistic assessment of university suitability or preparedness, they function solely as assessments of writing skills, again casting doubt on their usefulness in identifying good candidates. There is also evidence that a more structured approach to rating personal statements yielded negligible predictive validity for first year grades and dropout rates.

Any doubts about the validity of personal statements are likely to translate into inconsistencies in their use. There is little research examining how personal statements are used by university admissions teams – so we have no real understanding of the extent to which they are trusted by admissions departments and used seriously for decision-making. A greater concern for UCAS than what applicants are writing should be how university admissions staff are assessing their writing, as well as the biases that these staff implicitly or explicitly have regarding low socioeconomic and ethnic minority groups.

Finally, examining the issue of stress, a recent report analysed a large number of personal statements from students from underrepresented backgrounds, as well as conducting surveys and interviews of these students. Applicants from under-represented backgrounds were found to experience a number of challenges when writing their essays, with some spending 30-to-40 hours on their essays, with obvious knock-on effects to their studies and free time. Particular challenges arose from the free-form nature of the essay – such as writing the opening paragraph, developing an effective flow / structure arise, and uncertainty from the lack of an explicit question.

What is UCAS’ Proposed Solution?

UCAS current proposals are to replace this free text personal statement with a structured format consisting of 6 open questions:

  1. Motivation for Course – Why do you want to study these courses?
  2. Preparedness for Course – How has your learning so far helped you to be ready to succeed on these courses?
  3. Preparation through other experiences – What else have you done to help you prepare, and why are these experiences useful?
  4. Extenuating circumstances – Is there anything that the universities and colleges need to know about, to help them put your achievements and experiences so far into context?
  5. Preparedness for study – What have you done to prepare yourself for student life?
  6. Preferred Learning Styles – Which learning and assessment styles best suit you – how do your courses choices match that?

This structured format does have some improvements over the existing personal statement. For example, Jones, Fryer and Westlake (2023) argue that shorter, more guided questions are likely to reduce the stress burden on applicants, and are more transparent, making the essay easier to write. However, there is still likely to be a significant effort involved in writing the statement, given the number of questions.

Simply breaking the personal statement down in this way is unlikely to overcome the many other issues discussed above.

First, the issue of unfairness will remain. Pupils from better-off backgrounds will still have more experiences and activities to draw on in answering the questions. In fact, reducing the remit of short-answer questions to more specific topics could further highlight the lack of extra-curricular opportunities some students have to draw upon, especially since students will then be forced to provide an answer for each topic regardless of whether they have anything they feel important to say. Given a lack of ways of verifying applicants’ information, survey research suggests that there is already an established culture of lying or embellishing on personal statements, which could be exacerbated if applicants feel forced to list opportunities. Issues with spelling and grammar and greater sophistication of language will remain, even in this environment. And independent school pupils can still avail themselves of extra help in answering the questions – in fact a structured format could even make it easier for independent schools to assist their pupils in completing the form. A further issue concerns the rise of ChatGPT software, which seems particularly suited to this new style of short question, now potentially posing an existential threat to the personal statement.

Second, the issue of whether shorter questions are likely to alleviate stress is also questionable. There is not an existing literature on the differences in stress between writing long-form personal statements compared to shorter questions; i.e., there is not a hypothetical study where participants experienced two conditions and levels of stress were compared. Assumptions that shorter questions are less stressful are based on inferences from qualitative data about the current UCAS application. Until such a study is conducted – or the results of the natural experiment that UCAS propose by changing the questions are analysed – this remains an assumption. There is a possibility that issues of opening sentences, structure and word limits will apply to each of the 6 proposed short responses, ultimately multiplying the stress compared to one response.

Finally, as has already been criticised elsewhere, any reference to the concept of ‘learning styles’ (the idea that students have inherent differences that require them to be taught the same concepts in different ways for the instruction to be effective) should be omitted. The concept of learning styles has been debunked but persists as a ‘neuromyth’ which is at best pointless and at worst harmful.

Removing the personal statement altogether

In order to move towards a fairer, more equal applications process, we believe the personal statement should be removed from the university application process altogether. This would not be an unusual situation. Many countries, such as the Republic of Ireland, operate a completely blind process where grades are the only admission criteria.

A potential criticism (as pointed out by Jones, Fryer and Westlake) is that admissions would then be purely based on academic grades (plus an academic reference), meaning inequality could still arise if students’ grades (and teachers’ perception of them) do not accurately reflect their true ability. This is especially likely among more disadvantaged students, who have typically received far less investment in their education than their more advantaged peers. However, retaining the personal statement is unlikely to help with this problem, and may even compound it, if both grades and personal statements favour more advantaged students. A further potential problem is that the personal statement can be used as a means for students to highlight their extenuating circumstances – but this option could be retained without the personal statement.

The removal of the personal statement should be paired with a continuing push towards more contextual admissions. For example, in cases where there are several applicants with similar grades, places should be filled based on a contextual admission strategy (e.g., applicants on Free School Meals, from schools that traditionally send few applicants to university, etc., should be favoured). And beyond simply dealing with ties, students from low SES backgrounds should be given grade discounts. As we outline in a recent blog post, there is a clear economic rationale for the use of contextual admissions, to “level the playing field” at this crucial life stage. Any remaining ties in grades could be filled based on random assignment, which has also been shown to be a fair system of assignment when allocating individuals with the same levels of achievement.

The UK’s university applications system has remained unchanged for many years, and this reform is a unique opportunity to improve the fairness of the system. However, UCAS proposals do not appear to go far enough to achieve this goal.

 

Do contextual admissions hold back productivity?

By Blog Editor, on 20 December 2022

By Gill Wyness, Lindsey Macmillan, Claire Crawford and Richard Murphy.

There are substantial financial gains to attending university, and gains are especially high for the most selective institutions, from which many of the highest paying professions recruit. Recognising this, many parents send their children to independent schools, believing that this will dramatically increase their chances of gaining a place at a highly competitive institution. But a recent investigation by The Telegraph suggests the independent school stranglehold on Oxbridge is under threat, with the likelihood of their pupils receiving an offer dropping dramatically over the last five years. Commentators have blamed the practise of contextual admissions, which give pupils from state schools preferential entry – in some cases even when they have lower entry grades than those from private schools. Those against the practise argue it amounts to “class discrimination” and “social engineering”.

But the reality is that there is a clear economic rationale for contextual admissions. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds have typically received far less investment in their education than their more advantaged peers – including, but not limited to, the fact that they tend to attend lower quality schools. We would expect these disadvantages to translate into lower grades for a given level of underlying ‘ability’, reducing promising but disadvantaged students’ chances of gaining a place at a selective university. Grades are therefore contextualised for equity reasons, to “level the playing field” at this crucial life stage.

While there can be little doubt that contextual admissions improve equity, good economic policies should also be efficient. But many are concerned that contextual admissions may be inefficient. This would be the case if the lower attaining state school students who were given preferential entry to Oxbridge found themselves struggling academically, did poorly in their degrees and were less productive in the labour market. If their net gain from Oxbridge (versus how well they would have done at a lower quality institution) is lower than that which would have been experienced by the independent school students they displaced (taking account of how well the displaced student would have done at Oxbridge versus where they eventually ended up), this would constitute an efficiency loss. We should consider this equity-efficiency trade-off when we think about contextual admissions.

So, does it matter which students go to which universities? Are there higher returns for higher achieving students attending highly selective courses? Could the practice of contextual admissions be said to be damaging productivity or hampering economic growth?

One area of research we can look to, to inform this debate, is the area of student to university match. Research in this area considers the types of courses that students of different achievement levels attend, asking which is the most important for earnings: student achievement, course quality, or the interaction – or match – between the two. This helps address the question of whether students have better outcomes at universities to which they are better ‘matched’.

The evidence from this relatively small area of literature is mixed, however, with much of the evidence based on the effects of affirmative action bans in the United States. This has strong parallels with the use of contextualised admissions, in that it concerns the use of race (and other factors) to judge university applicants in order to improve the diversity of student populations, and is just as controversial in the US as it is here, with ongoing legal action currently being brought against two top universities – Harvard and University of North Carolina – which has now made its way to the Supreme Court.

One paper (Arcidiacono et al, 2016) examines the impact of the ban on affirmative action in California in 1998. After the ban, minority students no longer received preferential admissions to highly selective universities like Berkeley. This study argues that lower achieving minority students at top-ranked campuses would have higher science graduation rates had they attended lower-ranked campuses – in other words it was economically inefficient to send them to these universities.

However, a more recent paper studying the same affirmative action ban (Bleemer, 2022) found that it harmed underrepresented minority students by lowering their degree attainment and wages, as after the ban they were cascaded into lower quality universities. Indeed, the study suggested that that affirmative action’s net benefits for underrepresented minority applicants exceed its net costs for the white and Asian applicants at most risk of being displaced. The two papers use quite different approaches to study the question which may provide some explanation of why they find opposing results (with the former paper using a structural model, and the latter using nonexperimental methods). Other papers (Dillon and Smith, 2020; Light and Strayer, 2000) have found some evidence of student-university match effects, but have also found that these are far outweighed by course quality effects, suggesting students of all ability levels should try to get onto the best quality course they can to maximise their earnings. In other words, disadvantaged students are just as likely to benefit from going to a high quality course as those with higher attainment on entry, meaning contextual admissions are unlikely to harm them individually – while any efficiency losses are likely to be small.

A related strand of literature from the UK compares degree outcomes for students from different backgrounds or different schools with the same achievement on entry. These studies (e.g. Crawford, 2014a,b) find that students from private schools are, on average, more likely to drop-out, less likely to complete their degree and less likely to graduate with a 1st or 2:1 than state school students entering the same course with the same grades. This hints at the fact that achievement in school does not capture ‘ability’ or ‘potential to succeed’ in the same way for those from different school types, providing support for the rationale underlying contextual admissions.

Given the scarcity of evidence, and its mixed results, it is hard to argue that there are likely to be substantial efficiency losses to society from contextual admissions – while there are undoubtedly equity gains. There are still vast socio-economic disparities in entry rates to highly selective institutions in the UK. These disparities occur because those from lower socio-economic backgrounds typically achieve lower grades than those from richer backgrounds, who have had the benefit of a lifetime of high-quality education and parental input.

Contextualising admissions is one of the few tools we have at our disposal to help students with great potential to gain a place at a selective institution. We should not outlaw this practice without good evidence that it significantly harms productivity.

How has Covid-19 affected inequalities between state and private schools?

By Blog Editor, on 5 December 2022

By Jake Anders

Covid-19 caused significant and widespread disruption to young people’s education. But the effects were not the same for everyone. Many pre-existing inequalities have been exacerbated, including those between state schools and independent schools.

The pandemic has had a major effect on the education and wider lives of children and young people, ranging from access to early years provision, learning losses among school age pupils, and broader effects on mental health and wellbeing (Farmer, 2020). But the impact has not been the same for everyone.

It has become clear that school closures and online learning due to the pandemic have exacerbated existing inequalities in education. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils with additional needs (including special educational needs and disabilities) have been especially badly affected by the disruption. In this article, we focus particularly on inequalities that emerged through differences in the responses of state and private schools.

Less than 10% of young people in England attend a private school during their education. Nevertheless, these institutions have an outsized influence on the persistence of educational advantage. They are highly socially selective, with the vast majority of those attending private schools coming from families in the top 10% of the income distribution (Anders et al., 2020; Henseke et al., 2021).

Further, the gap in resources between state and private schools is large (Green et al, 2017). It has grown larger over the past decade: from £3,100 per pupil per year in 2010/11 to £6,500 by 2020/21 (Sibieta, 2021).

Based on a combination of these factors, people who have attended private schools are disproportionately likely to be employed in high-status jobs later in life (Sullivan et al., 2016). Privately educated graduates are a third more likely to enter a high-status occupation than state-educated peers from similar families and neighbourhoods (Macmillan et al., 2015).

Early on in the pandemic, there were many anecdotes about differences in school responses, emphasising some schools’ rapid move to live online lessons. But much of the data available to test these narratives only covered state schools (a notable exception is Andrew et al., 2020).

Things have changed with new data from the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO). This cohort study of young people in Year 10 at the pandemic’s onset provides high quality new data to explore the issue. Here, we consider some of the differences that emerged between state and private schools due to the large resource differences and why they matter.

Schooling in lockdown

When the first national lockdown began in the spring of 2020, schools played a vital role in responding to myriad challenges facing their pupils. With concerns about welfare and wellbeing, it was understandable that tasks such as free school meal voucher distribution, checking on how pupils’ families were coping in terms of mental health, welfare and food, and providing information on where they could obtain support distracted from efforts to organise online learning for pupils. This was particularly acute for schools with many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (Moss et al., 2020).

With more resources and fewer issues to solve, private schools were able to move quickly to set up alternatives to in-person classes. For example, 94% of private school participants who responded to the COSMO study received live online lessons during the first national lockdown.

This was 30 percentage points higher than the rate reported among those in comprehensive schools. The vast majority (84%) also reported receiving more than three online classes per school day during this period, compared with 41% in state grammar schools and 33% in state comprehensive schools.

Figure 1: Provision of live online lessons, by school characteristics, lockdown one (March-June 2020) and lockdown three (January-March 2021)

Source: COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO).
Notes: N=12,505, including 11,317 in state comprehensive group; analysis weighted to account for study design and young person non-response.

There were not national school closures during the second lockdown (in the autumn of 2020). By the third national lockdown in early 2021, state schools with the most advantaged intakes had largely caught up with private schools’ remote learning provision.

Pupils in these schools were now similarly likely to be offered remote lessons (around 95% in state grammar and state comprehensive schools with the least disadvantaged intakes). But they were still not providing as many per day, with 82% of those in state grammars and 71% in the least deprived state comprehensives reporting receiving more than three online classes per day, compared with 93% in private schools.

On the other hand, state schools with more disadvantaged intakes had made less progress on both fronts – 80% of pupils in these schools reported receiving any online lessons and 53% more than three per day – remaining behind in terms of online lesson provision.

Pupils at independent schools were also more likely to have regular contact with a teacher outside class during lockdowns. Here, state schools caught up slightly in the third lockdown.

But state comprehensive pupils were more than twice as likely to report difficulties in accessing support from teachers than pupils at private schools (17% compared with 8% in the third lockdown).

Pupils at private schools also reported spending more time on schoolwork during lockdowns than their state school peers. This added up to more than one extra working day per week of time spent on schoolwork in both the first and third lockdowns.

Many of these differences are not down to the schools directly. Rather, they are due to challenges faced depending on pupils’ circumstances.

For example, almost a quarter of pupils attending state comprehensives with the most deprived intakes did not have access to a suitable device for joining remote classes in the first lockdown. This figure was under 2% for pupils at independent schools.

Similarly, 13% of those at state comprehensive schools reported issues due to having to share devices needed to take part in online learning. Only 4% at independent schools faced the same issue.

Catch up

Given these inequalities, it is unsurprising that young people at state schools were more likely to think that their progress has suffered because of the Covid-19 disruption. In state schools, 81% of pupils reported this, compared with 72% at private schools. To address this, a much larger effort to support young people in state schools to catch up is needed.

This is especially important as the gap in disruption to learning did not stop with the resumption of in-person schooling. For example, teacher absence has taken a larger toll on state schools in the post-restrictions period of the pandemic.

Staff absence rates due to Covid-19 infections in state schools have been higher than private schools. In a snapshot survey in early 2022, 20% of state school teachers reported that at least one in ten staff in their school were absent. Only 12% of private school staff reported the same (Sutton Trust, 2022).

What have we learned about differences in catch-up activities between state and private schools? Evidence from the COSMO study finds that 53% of young people took part in at least one type of catch-up activity.

This figure was 54% for young people in state comprehensive schools, and slightly lower at 51% for those in independent schools. So, there is some evidence of differential catch up weighted towards the state sector, but it is not large. The definition of catch-up activities is wide, from extra online classes to one-to-one tuition. The latter of these is most likely to have had significant catch-up benefits (Burgess, 2020).

Focusing on the offer of tutoring, this was more likely for young people at independent schools (52% compared with 41% in state comprehensive schools). This is despite the government’s flagship National Tutoring Programme (NTP).

The NTP was meant to target this sort of provision to pupils who needed it most. Unfortunately, its reach was narrower than hoped, with an official evaluation report highlighting that ‘only around a half of school leads and staff felt that all or most of the pupils selected were disadvantaged’ (Lord et al., 2022).

That said, pupils in independent schools were less likely to have taken part in tutoring than those in state schools. Among independent school pupils, 23% said they had taken up this offer, compared with 27% in comprehensive schools. This seems to reflect pupils in private schools being less likely to feel that they needed this help, even if it was being offered. An equally important aspect of pupils’ ability to re-engage fully in their education is their mental health. Pupils attending private schools were more than twice as likely to report that their school mental health support was very good (26%) than state school pupils (10%) (Holt-White et al., 2022)

Figure 2: Whether participant agreed they had caught up with lost learning during the pandemic, by gender and school type

Source: COSMO Notes: N=12,149; analysis is weighted for survey design and young person non-response.

Despite catch-up efforts, pupils at state comprehensive schools were the least likely to think they had been able to catch up (34%). This compared with 58% of pupils at independent schools who felt this way. Almost half (46%) of pupils at comprehensive schools said they had not been able to catch up, while just over a quarter (27%) at independent schools felt the same.

Assessment during Covid-19

Because of the disruption to schooling, the government decided to replace GCSE and A-level exams with teacher assessed grades in 2020 (and centre assessed grades in 2021). Some adaptation was unavoidable, given the Covid-19 restrictions. But many highlighted the importance of retaining externally set and marked assessment (Anders et al., 2021).

Indeed, there is evidence of biases in teacher assessed grades that affect ethnic minority groups, those from lower income backgrounds, boys and those with special educational needs (Burgess and Greaves, 2013; Campbell, 2015). Top grades awarded in the two years in which teacher or centre assessed grades were used jumped up compared with the years before.

But the increase was most prevalent in private schools (Anders and Macmillan, 2022). The proportion of A grades awarded at A-level rose from 44.7% in 2019 to 70.4% in private schools in 2021 (compared with a rise from 24.1% to 42.1% in state academy schools).

Some of this could have been due to the differences in provision highlighted above. Yet, the particularly dramatic fall in grades for private schools in 2022 – a cohort that had more of their education disrupted – casts doubt on this.

We can also use findings from the COSMO study to understand differences in assessment practices between the sectors. Pupils in this cohort received teacher assessed grades for their GCSEs in 2021.

Private school pupils were more likely to say that their teacher assessed grades were better than expected than state school pupils. Likewise, they were much less likely to report that they did worse than expected. As with the changes in grades over time, this suggests a more generous approach to teacher assessed grades in private schools.

Whatever the exact mechanisms, these results represent a significant widening of the qualifications gap between state and private school pupils. This will have had – and will continue to have – significant implications for pupils’ future educational and employment trajectories.

Conclusion

Taken together, we can see that there are a range of ways in which disruption as a result of the pandemic has laid the groundwork for increased inequalities between pupils who attended state and private schools throughout their lives.

Existing gaps have been reinforced by differences in schools’ capacity to implement quick and effective responses at the outbreak of the pandemic.

It seems unlikely that these inequalities have been fully addressed with the fairly small differences in catch-up offerings – pupils themselves reinforce this view. And the use of teacher assessment in the place of usual exams appears to have baked in the results.

We will not know the full extent of the implications of this disruption for years to come. The COSMO study is designed to try to help us to do exactly that.

Some of the differences may unwind. For example, if some pupils’ grades were flattered more by teacher assessment than others, we would not expect this in itself to result in long-term productivity gains and hence to affect individuals’ wages (Wyness et al., 2021). Nevertheless, the knock-on effects (for example, access to university) may still reinforce the educational gap.

Ultimately, the early signs are not promising for inequalities in life chances between state and privately educated pupils as a result of the pandemic. We must not forget about the young people who have been disproportionately affected during this time.

As the pandemic subsides, it is easy to focus on ‘getting back to normal’, but in reality, extraordinary efforts are still needed to try to address these inequalities.

While important in itself, ensuring everyone is given the opportunity to achieve their potential in life is vital to the country’s productivity and, hence, everyone’s future economic prosperity.

This article was first published on the Economics Observatory on 5 December 2022.

Understanding young people’s unequal experience of the pandemic: now and into the future

By Blog Editor, on 13 October 2022

Jake Anders is the Principal Investigator of the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), and Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)

Today marks an important landmark in the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO) and, with it, our understanding of the unequal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people’s life chances. After more than 18 months of development and fieldwork, we are releasing initial findings and data from the first wave of this planned cohort study.

Unlike much other research from the pandemic, COSMO comes as close as possible to recruiting a representative group of young people from across the country. This is because it is based on invitations to a random sample of all young people in schools across England, rather than a convenient sample collected for some other purpose who are not, therefore, necessarily similar to the population of young people as a whole. Why does this matter? Having a representative sample gives us increased confidence that our findings paint an accurate picture of the extent and variation in the experiences of this group.

As a result, we are extremely grateful to the more than 13,000 young people across England who responded to our invitation to take part in this study, providing us with details of their experiences to help us build up a picture of the lives of this generation and how it has been disrupted. Through this, COSMO is providing vital new evidence on the effects of the pandemic on the lives of young people, with strong signs that it has severely widened existing educational inequalities: 80% of participants told us their academic progress suffered because of the pandemic’s disruption — a figure that is even higher among those from less advantaged backgrounds. Moreover, there are worrying signs that initial impacts have not been fully addressed by the policy response in this country: only about a third of young people told us they have been able to catch up with their lost learning.

Participants’ views on whether their academic progress has suffered

We are documenting aspects of young people’s experiences during and beyond the pandemic in a series of briefing notes authored by members of the COSMO research team, with the first three of these on ‘lockdown learning’, ‘education recovery and catch up’, and ‘future plans and aspirations’ released today and more to come. These shine a light on important details of young people’s experiences.

Changes to educational plans by COVID-19 status

They highlight, for example, that well over half of young people report some change to their education and career plans because of the pandemic, and that this is particularly the case among those who report more acute direct experiences of COVID-19 itself, raising important questions about the consequences of such shifts if they are realised in the years to come.

They also increase our understanding of barriers to learning in lockdown, helping us to break down the factors that seemed to limit home learning, notably the lack of suitable electronic devices to engage in remote lessons or other online educational activities — this is particularly concerning given that over half of those who lacked such a suitable device told us this need had still not been met at the end of the second period of national school closures.

The extremely rich data from COSMO covering the circumstances and experiences of this representative sample of young people, are now available for other researchers to use to address other vital research questions. COSMO is not just a standalone effort to set out the findings as we see them, but also a resource to support others carrying out research to understand this generation.

But, importantly, COSMO’s ability to tell us about these short-term effects is just the start. COSMO is designed as a cohort study, which means that we aim to continue following the lives of its members over the coming years. Just as we are publishing findings from our first survey, we are just getting started in the process of inviting members of the cohort to take part in the first follow-up. Establishing this link through time will be vital to understanding whether conditions during the pandemic have lasting consequences for decisions that young people make about their wellbeing, education, careers and more. Cohort studies for previous generations, such as the British Cohort Study that continues to follow a group of people born in 1970, have been vital to illuminating our understanding of social mobility in society – extending such understanding to the current generation with their unique experiences completing their education will only become more vital.

Whether or not we think of the pandemic as over, its effects will continue to cast a long shadow, and COSMO will continue to help us to understand this in the years to come.

Turbulence on the glide path: A-level results 2022

By Blog Editor, on 18 August 2022

Jake Anders and Lindsey Macmillan

This year sees A-level (or equivalent) results for the cohort of pupils who were on the cusp of sitting their GCSEs in 2020 when exams were first cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now exams are back, much to the dismay of many who believe that teacher-assessed grades should become the new norm. Here at CEPEO, we’ve regularly made the case for externally set and externally marked exams, based on academic evidence that teacher assessment leads to biases against certain groups. But what has the return of exams meant for results?

The implementation of a “glide path” has been successful – generally speaking, the results are pretty much halfway between those from 2019 and 2021. While the headlines are all focused on grades being down on last year, they are, if anything, slightly more generous than might have been predicted given the intention to deal with half of the grade inflation from teacher assessment seen in 2020 and 2021. This will be driven by the fact that these weren’t strictly exams in the 2019 sense – leniency in marking was encouraged and pupils had extra information in advance of exams, which may also have had other consequences that we’ll come back to shortly.

They don’t mean that learning loss for these students is no longer a problem – since the overall level of grades was decided by that “glide path”. As such, we do not know if this group of students would have achieved as good grades as their peers in 2019 despite the disruption. This is particularly the case given some remaining incomparability with 2019 around leniency in marking and advance notice of exam content. Ongoing concerns about learning loss, its consequences, and support for catching up need to be informed by other evidence, not allayed by these results.

Regional differences present a worrying picture for inequalities – the gap in the proportion of pupils achieving A or above at A level has increased between regions, from 7.3ppts in 2019 to 8.2ppts in 2022. So, London and the South East are continuing to pull away from other areas while the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber are particularly being left behind. This trend of Southern regions pulling ahead was also evident in the Key Stage 2 data released last month, and will provide a big headache for a government that has put ‘levelling up’ at the heart of what they plan to achieve.

Distribution of grades in 2019 and 2022 by English region

Source: JCQ

A mixed picture across centre type – FE colleges and independent schools have seen the biggest absolute declines in the proportion of A-levels awarded A or above. For independent schools, this is not altogether surprising given their huge grade inflation from 2019 to 2021, which saw a massive 25.7ppt increase in the proportion of pupils achieving A or above over the period, and over 70% of all private school pupils awarded an A or above in 2021. This number has returned to a more ‘reasonable’ 58% for 2022. Two points to make here: First, this highlights the extent of grade inflation in this type of centre during the period of teacher assessment. Second, this is still an extremely high proportion of pupils achieving a grade A or above, which could be indicative of private school pupils being better placed to make use of the additional information on exam content made available in advance this year, as well as the advantages that private school pupils had in terms of relative learning loss during the pandemic.

FE colleges are far more puzzling – they have seen a similar absolute decline in the proportion achieving A or above, but from a much lower base. They saw a 16.5ppt rise in pupils achieving A or above from 2019 to 2021, only 29.2% reached this level of achievement by 2021. This has fallen back down to 16.5% in 2022. Somewhat speculatively, it seems plausible that students in FE colleges were, in contrast to those at independent schools, particularly badly affected by the disruption wrought by COVID-19.

Percentage of A-levels awarded A*/A by centre type in 2019, 2021 and 2022

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/guide-to-as-and-a-level-results-in-england-summer-2022

Grammar schools, on the other hand, have found themselves performing at a level that is almost comparable with that seen in 2021, despite the different type of assessment, and 14.1ppts higher than 2019. One explanation for this could be, like private schools, that grammar school teachers and pupils were better placed to use the additional information released in advance of exams this year, focusing on a far narrower set of curricula. Additionally, this may be the first indication (through exam results at least) that pupils from more advantaged backgrounds were less constrained by learning loss during the pandemic.

In many ways, these results have not told us much we did not already know – it was already pretty clear that independent school grades, especially, were artificially inflated by teacher assessment, although the percentage coming back down now challenges those who told a tale of Covid learning loss advantages last year. We already knew that the impacts of COVID-19 disruption were likely to be unequal. And we already knew that this was going to be an extremely tough transition for those young people in the middle of it, rightly proud of what they have achieved through difficult circumstances, but unsure of what it all means compared to their peers one year above or below them.