How the National Exams highlight the inequalities between wealthier and poorer pupils

How the National Exams highlight the inequalities between wealthier and poorer pupils

How the National Exams highlight the inequalities between wealthier and poorer pupils

Many students are enraged over the unfair results. 

Years of hard work, stress and effort leads up to one day — results day. It is the day students find out whether they have reaped the rewards of their efforts. For some, it is a day to celebrate; for others, it can be somewhat crushing not seeing the grades they were hoping for.  

However, last year due to the pandemic, there were massive changes made to ensure that the spread of the virus was contained. One of these changes were the cancellations of the national exams (e.g. GCSEs and A-Levels). Whilst some students celebrated this, others were worried. A new system had to be devised to ensure that students received the grades they needed — teachers will predict pupils’ GCSE and A-level grades. The exam boards then moderate the estimated grades and issue the final results. According to Ofqual, factors that would be taken into account are the historic results of pupils at each school, the prior attainment of students, and statistical expectations about grade distribution for each subject. Whilst Ofqual said the reason for this was so that schools would not be able to send in unrealistic grades, many believed this system had several flaws 

One possible worry is that BAMER students would be the most affected, as well as pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs and disabilities. Education Committee chairman Robert Halfon warned that “there is a risk it will lead to unfair bias and discrimination against already disadvantaged groups”. Despite the system using a number of sources such as mock grades, class work, and so forth, there is still some clear evidence of academic bias that places BAME and poorer students in a vulnerable position. 

However, as displayed by the similar system used for the Scottish exams, the system highlighted inequalities. The Scottish Children’s Commissioner’s office said pupils from more deprived areas had been downgraded based on the historic performance of their school rather than their performance. This led to over 125,000 estimates being downgraded. Furthermore, it was also found that higher pass rates for pupils in the most deprived areas were reduced by 15.2%, compared with 6.9% for pupils from the wealthier backgrounds. The students outrage led to a protest, organised by Erin Bleakley, after she saw her maths grade go from an A in her prelim to a D from the SQA on the final results. Bleakley told BBC Good Morning Scotland that she was really disappointed with the results she received, and “I just hope that we are heard and that our voices are heard today. We will not stand back and take this. We are not determined by our postcodes”. 

The A-Level results were released on Thursday 14th August 2020. Yet students were also met with tears and anger, as grades were also severely downgraded. 36% of entries had a lower grade than teachers predicted and 3% were down two grades in results after exams were cancelled by the pandemic. However, in comparison, private and independent schools performed better, with A grades and above jumping 4.7% year-on-year — more than double the figure at secondary comprehensives, which rose by 2%. Furthermore, private schools saw an increase of 2.3% — compared to 2.5% at comprehensives, 0.2% at secondary selectives and 0.3% at sixth form and further education colleges, when just looking at C grades. Former Labour Education Secretary Ed Balls tweeted it was “beyond belief” the plan would “bias results towards private schools and against large sixth form colleges”. 

For those who feel let down by their grades, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commented that “Where pupils are disappointed, where they feel that they could have done better, where they feel that there’s an injustice been done to them, there is the possibility of appeal and they can re-sit, they can take a re-sit this autumn as well”. 

However, in a government U-turn on Monday 17th August, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, announced that all A-Level and GCSE students in England would be given grades estimated by their teachers, rather than by the algorithm previously used.   

With national exams already announced to be cancelled and replaced with teacher assessments for 2021, there will be no harmful algorithm. It nevertheless remains to be seen how the potential negative impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be minimised. 

JAN Trust continues to fight to remove the disparities and obstacles BAME and people from disadvantaged backgrounds may face across the board, including receiving exam results. JAN Trust commits to continuing to fight tirelessly to ensure we minimise the extra obstacles such individuals may face.