Today’s A-level results are a victory for the Government’s efforts to reduce Covid-induced grade inflation. This is the first year since 2019 where students have sat traditional exams. Whereas, from 2010 to 2019, the number of pupils receiving A*s or As hovered between 25 and 27 percent, the cancellation of exams and the introduction of teacher-assessed grades saw that figure hit 39 percent in 2020 and 45 percent in 2021. This year that was down to 36 percent.
It would be very difficult to squeeze this inflation out of the system in one go. One sotto voce justification for more generous grades in the last two years was to ease the pain of the disruption endured by several GCSE and A-level cohorts. This year’s crop should be the last to feel that significantly. More importantly, as David James has highlighted for CapX, this is a bracing dose of sanity for anti-exam educationalists for whom Covid provided the opportunity to do away with exams all together. Today is a reminder that all cannot have prizes, and to reward genuine ability requires others to go unrewarded.
Moreover, as Hannah Tomes has pointed out for The Spectator, the drop to 58 percent of private school pupils receiving top grades from 70 percent last year – compared to 57 percent to 50 percent in the state sector – goes some way to closing the attainment gap between the two. A geographic gap admittedly persists, with 31 percent of north-eastern pupils receiving three A grades or higher compared to 39 percent in London. This partially reflects a differing quality in schools in different parts of the country, and of the advantages or otherwise of their attendees. But those differences should not be exaggerated by teacher laxity.
Ultimately, more than 425,000 students have received a place at a university or college. Not only is that the second highest number on record, but also includes 19 percent more students being accepted into their first or insurance choice institution than in 2019. So this is no return to the bad old days. It is a return to the world of three years ago, before the educational mission that has been such a bright spark for the Tories since 2010 was knocked off course by lockdown hysteria and over-indulgent teachers.
Today’s results are thus a small and significant step in the direction of grade sanity and rigorous standards. But a giant leap will be required to get things back to where they were. That is not only because the number of A* or A pupils are still significantly above the norm, but because universities themselves are starting to eschew the pursuit of academic excellence for tedious social engineering.
The Telegraph highlighted this week how many pupils who received their results today may have been offered places based on more on their backgrounds rather than their abilities. Clare Marchant, the chief executive of university admissions service UCAS, is on record as saying disadvantaged pupils were “put first” by institutions making offers this year. The paper’s own research suggested that, in an unprecedented move, teenagers from areas deemed the “most advantaged” are the least likely of any group to have received an offer of a university place. This of a piece with comments by Professor Stephen Toope, the outgoing vice-chancellor of a university near Huntingdon, that private schools should accept they will get fewer pupils to Oxbridge in future.
James Cleverley, our Education Secretary for the next week or two, has claimed he is “not uncomfortable” with universities tilting their admissions processes in favour of state school pupils. Now they charge fees that the taxpayer is ultimately expected to underwrite, universities are no longer as independent as they once were. So the views of ministers and quangocrats matter more than they once did. And that is especially the case if the ideas they are expostulating are rather un-Conservative.
Traditionally, the Tory way to increase the number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has not been to fiddle with the metrics by which intakes are chosen, but to improve the quality of schools. The disastrous decisions of 2020 – as The Spectator have highlighted, almost half of parents of GCSE and A-level pupils have suggested their school provided no ‘remote learning’ during the first lockdown’ – undermined the fantastic work the Conservatives have been doing in office since 2010 to improve school standards for the worst off. By 2018, almost two million more pupils were in schools rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted than eight years before. Two years later, very few were in a school at all.
All of this has filtered through. Seven years ago, Oxford took 56 percent of pupils from state schools. By 2020, it was 69 percent. The headline-grabbing cases of schools like Brampton Manor Academy sending more pupils to Oxbridge than Eton highlights a Conservative focus on educational rigour works. But what is the point of improving educational standards across the state sector if universities look to backgrounds before results? How can we treat figures like those as successes, if the origin of offers has been politicised?
Conservatives should be elitists. We understand some are more talented, more able, and more intelligent than others, and that that should be recognised and allowed to flourish accordingly. That is why we know the devaluing of grades through inflation is wrong. We also know that talent isn’t equally distributed throughout the population, and that whilst ability can correlate with background, good schools across the board are required to ensure everyone has the opportunity to rise as high as their talents can take them. That was the core of Gove’s mission.
But the pursuit of excellence requires recognising it whether it comes from a private school or a state one. There is no point in fixing grade inflation if universities are increasingly failing to take those grades into account when selecting applicants. Rather than indulge in this petty egalitarianism, the Government must make the case for excellence. If it is willing to defend fewer pupils getting A*s and As, then it should ensure that those results matter.