The Widening Gap in A Level Results
Catherine Stone discusses this year’s record-high A Level Results and whether the pandemic has compounded existing inequalities.
The figures are stark: the increase in A grades at A Level is 50 per cent higher for private schools than state schools and sixth forms this year.
Arguably the most important letter a student ever receives, A Level results are a source of great anxiety for 18-year-olds across the country every year, and with good reason: they determine university offers and job offers and, to a certain extent, a student’s future trajectory. The dramatically differing attainment of private and state students this year is therefore of great concern.
the limited rise in grades in state schools and sixth forms is the direct result of the greater impact of lockdowns and pandemic disruption on students from lower income families
The cancellation of exams for the second year running due to the pandemic means students’ A Level grades were again assessed by teachers and moderated by exams regulator Ofqual. This resulted in a significant jump in the number of students achieving high grades compared to both last year and the pre-pandemic average. The grade inflation, which has been greeted with alarm by many, has not been even across the board, however. Private school students have done exceptionally well; the number of A or A* grades at independent schools has soared from 44 per cent in 2018 to 70 per cent in 2021. Additionally, 39.5 per cent of private school entries achieved one A* grade or more, compared to 16.1 per cent in 2019 exams. The 12.1 per cent increase in A*s on 2020 in private schools can be compared to a 5.8 per cent increase at state grammar schools, 3.9 per cent at state comprehensives and a proportionally tiny 1.9 per cent rise at state sixth forms.
The success of private schools may be attributed to their successful handling of online learning, with more individual attention due to smaller class sizes and more sophisticated online learning platforms. Private schools have also tended to assess students’ progress broadly with tests, coursework essays, ‘open book’ exams and other assessments set and rigorously marked throughout the year. Given fee-paying parents’ financial investment in their children’s education and, by extension, their grades, parental pressure on teachers at independent schools is higher. There is also likely to be greater attention paid to monitoring their children’s progress while they are learning at home.
Conversely, the limited rise in grades in state schools and sixth forms is the direct result of the greater impact of lockdowns and pandemic disruption on students from lower income families. State school students have faced a lack of resources to facilitate online learning, such as individual laptops, access to the internet and appropriate space to study at home. This detrimentally coincided with the closure of school study spaces and public libraries.
State school and sixth form students have missed out on university places at top institutions, not because their grades are below average, but because so many students have achieved the very highest grades and secured the finite number of places on courses.
This is not to suggest that the record numbers of high grades are not deserved. It is an even clearer indication that given proper, sustained support and appropriate facilities, the full potential of students can be gauged effectively without exams.