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The A-Level results are out: The big fish in small ponds to be released

When finishing  school at the age of eighteen, I set off from home to start a degree.  A teacher told us that we were going from being “big fish in a little pond to little fish in a big pond”. I remember thinking that I was already a little fish in a big pond but was being released into an ocean. It was exciting. The certainty was that there was only one way for me to go; and that was up. This week sees another generation of students released into the ocean and the excitement is surely mixed with trepidation in increasingly uncertain times. Although fewer achieved higher grades, there were the usual dampeners in the media about slipping standards. Faith in the accuracy of the system is also dissipating with grade boundaries leaked the day before and revelations about possibly inaccurate grades. Yet hordes of excited young people will descend upon our institutions by the end of September regardless.


Yesterday saw the release of the A-Level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many thousands of young adults had prepared themselves for an event that is most likely to change their lives. The day before was the release of the BTEC results that will also shape the lives and careers of a generation. Last week the Scottish Highers emerged with the same effect.

We should all offer huge congratulations to those that have achieved the grades they worked hard for. Also we should not forget to congratulate their teachers who have worked had to back their students during the years before. We should not forget that students will be leaving the certainties and shelter of their teachers and schools to enter what may seem like an ocean. This will be accompanied by a sense of loss for teachers and students alike. Many students will also be leaving home for the first time. Some will have jobs to go to whilst most will be moving onto higher education. Some will not have achieved the grades that they expected and will be learning a harsh lesion in life earlier that some of their peers. However, all is not lost and there is abundant advice available and a dynamic clearing system working through UCAS for them in finding a way through. They may end up living in a city a long away from home that was unexpected or unplanned. The challenges will me great. Many families will be adding up the costs and worries about affordability and debt will emerge. Finding part-time jobs and commuting costs will also emerge as students try to protect their families from the burden. Others will not have any family support and will face greater challenges. Yet they will no doubt proceed with optimism.


When I started my degree many years ago, the head of department gathered the large first year class together and offered advice that has stayed with me;

“Remember you are all
here to
enjoy yourselves……… (cheers)…. But in between doing that you will work bloody hard!” He was right.

The UCAS headline defies belief.


In the context of other media coverage this week, it was somewhat astounding that UCAS led with the headline news that ‘Record number of disadvantaged students off to university’. It might be worth noting that UCAS is an organisation that relies upon subscriptions from the universities themselves. In total defiance of the mounting evidence that using postcodes and the POLAR methodology as a proxy for measuring disadvantage (see TEFS 22nd April 2019 ‘UPDATE: POLAR whitewash fails to cover all surfaces’), they stated that, “A record 17.3 per cent of 18 year olds (18,900 students, which is also the highest on A level results day) from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 quintile 1) in England have been accepted – a rise of 0.8 percentage points on 2018. This slightly narrows the gap between the most and least advantaged groups.” This is a minor shift in the right direction and matches a very slow trend in reaching parity of opportunity for students from these areas. It seems that we may well be on still on target to reach parity with the more advantaged areas by 2204; if we can wait that long (see TEFS 19th October 2019 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’). The other media coverage failed to spot this as they concentrated on revelations about standards and marking accuracy alongside calls to move the whole admissions process to after the examination results.

Maintaining standards.

Last year, there was a raft of media coverage that questioned a decline in standards. TEFS discussed then the effects over time in TEFS 17th August 2018 ‘A-Level Playing Field or not: Have things changed over time?’ This year, there are the usual rumblings in the media about fewer students achieving A and A star grades (BBC News 15th August 2019 ‘A-levels: Dip in top grades as thousands get results’). Others were not to be deterred and this was balanced by the revelations that grade boundaries have slipped again in most subjects as these were leaked the day before (BBC News ‘A-level grade boundaries leaked ahead of results day’). In observing that marks in the 50-60% band were achieving an A grade, the Telegraph pulled few punches in criticising the results with ‘First ever Maths A-level where getting almost half of answers wrong will get you an A’. No doubt students will ignore this and move on to do their best regardless.

The Northern Ireland paradox.

The media was also quick to point out that that the results for Northern Ireland were again better than in England and Wales (BBC News 15th August 2019 'A-level top grades rise in Northern Ireland'). The hint is that somehow Northern Ireland is better but the reasons are then avoided. The system in Scotland is so different that meaningful comparisons are difficult to make. Many in Northern Ireland are proud of their success and assume that the education is better there. Some are even convinced that Northern Ireland people are inherently better and work harder. But the reality is starker. Northern Ireland has retained a highly selective grammar school system in the face of much criticism. The statistics show that this year there are a total of 142,239 students in post primary schools and that 62,862 are in selective grammar schools. These do very well but the rest are left behind in the system. Despite abolition of the state 11+ exam the grammar schools continue to run their own selection exams. Needless to say there are two types of exam for the two types of school. The social divisions are in parallel along with the two religious and sectarian divisions. This was the subject of fierce criticism recently by John Fitzgerald in the Irish Times in April ‘North's poor education system a recipe for failure’ who noted that “This outdated selective system of secondary education has resulted in Northern Ireland having the lowest human capital of any UK region.” The article was based upon earlier research from the University of Ulster. The inequalities in Northern Ireland are stark and anyone seeking to emulate the Northern Ireland ‘success’ elsewhere in the UK might do well to consider this downside (see Colin Knox and Vani Borooah (2017) ‘Inequality, segregation and poor performance: the education system in Northern Ireland’ Educational review 69, 3118-336 and Northern Ireland Commission for Children and Young People report July 2017 ‘Educational Inequalities and Inclusion Position Paper’)

A cloud hangs over the accuracy of the whole system.


The Sunday Times decided to crash a wrecking ball into the system with a short article last Sunday ‘Revealed — A-level results are 48% wrong’. They laced this with revelations such as “But for the third year in a row, after the phased introduction of tough new exams, exam boards have confirmed that they have lowered the marks candidates need to achieve good grades. Pass marks in subjects such as maths have dropped to 20% or less.” This should not deter students from pressing on and they will no doubt ignore it. After all, what else can they do.

The article cites research by the regulator Ofqual with “Two out of five teenagers who sat essay-based A-levels may be awarded the “wrong” grade when results come out on Thursday because of inconsistent marking, according to research by the exam regulator Ofqual”. However, a link to the actual research is not revealed. Ofqual were quick to respond in ‘Statement in relation to misleading story ahead of A level results’ with a somewhat obscure statement that did little to inspire confidence; “This is not new, the issue has existed as long as qualifications have been marked and graded. On that basis, more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student’s performance and they would both be a sound estimate of that student’s ability at that point in time based on the available evidence from the assessment they have undertaken.” In releasing the statement, those at Ofqual do themselves and their efforts little justice. They also failed to provide a link to the research that is the source of the uncertainty. This was a research report published back in November 2018 ‘Marking consistency metrics: An update’. This is a comprehensive explanation of the extraordinary lengths that the exam boards go to try to ensure accuracy, consistence and fairness. The report is of a highly statistical nature that may only be assessable to those well versed in statistical methods. However, the preliminary description of the procedures used is easy to understand. A more accessible explanation is in a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute in January of this year ‘1 school exam grade in 4 is wrong. That’s the good news…’ by Dennis Sherwood of the ‘Silver Bullet Machine’ consultancy.

It follows on from an earlier report in 2016 and reflects how seriously Ofqal and the Examination Boards take their task.
The checks and double checks are adhered to and those marking are under scrutiny through blind marking sample papers that have already been graded. But a problem arises in allocating grades. By using broad grades in the first place, this leads to a greater probability of allocating the ‘wrong’ grade when marks get closer to the grade boundary used. Conversely, there is greater leeway if the allocated marks are nearer the middle of the grade boundaries. The solution is to look again at all papers that come close to each boundary and consider releasing percentage marks and not use grades at all. In my experience, Universities reached this conclusion some time ago and many have been using compensation systems for marks close to boundaries between degree classes. One only hope is that some bright spark doesn’t suggest that the examiners try to avoid allocating marks close to boundaries to get rid of the possible anomalies.

Delaying admissions comes to the fore again.


Calls for admissions to universities to be delayed until after the examination results are out accompanied the results. These were led by the Labour Party this week with ‘Scrap university offers based on predicted grades’. The idea is to remove the unconditional offers that many universities have resorted to in the light of declining applicants. However, it will be resisted by the universities. The main concern will be the chaos and rush that will ensue late in the summer. This will be damaging with planning concentrated into a very short period. Yet in a ’buyer’s market’ with spaces available, many mote students have already voted with their feet and delayed their applications to enter the so called ‘clearing system’. Others are ‘trading up’ once they have their results in. Based upon the initial clearing places data from UCAS,

The Telegraph reported yesterday that ‘More students go straight to clearing as Russell Group universities drop grades to take extra applicants’. However, we need to wait for more data to emerge to see a fuller picture. One thing is sure, the elite universities are turning to students from outside the EU and UK in greater numbers as reported in Times Higher today with ‘Top universities replace UK school-leavers with foreign students’. The gap between these universities and others will become greater as a result.

Many genuinely disadvantaged students may find they are ill prepared to face the challenges, whilst others with more resources are tactically in the ascendancy. If change is inevitable, then it is most likely that the examinations will be moved to earlier the year. This may be a good thing for those less prepared. The time left in a final term at school might be bette
r if more time was devoted to studies linked to the transition to higher education and work. The ‘small fish’ might become better acclimatised to the bigger pond and the oceanic world they will soon enter.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics

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