On the disparities of educational achievement

I feel privileged to attend one of the best universities in the country, but my place at Warwick was not a forgone conclusion. For one, the demographic analysis states that as a working-class Bangladeshi, I am one of the most likely to underperform in education. Bangladeshi boys are placed just above black working-class boys in educational underperformance, with working-class white boys at the bottom. There is a range of reasons for this, but the key factor is relative poverty. Thankfully, I was blessed to be raised in a family with working parents, are university educated, and placed the most upmost value in education. 

Yet despite their best efforts, life is never a consistent path. Starting my A-Levels aged 16, I began to suffer from acute depression. My focus faltered and I dropped out of Sixth Form with two D grades, one E grade and a U. This was very much my rock bottom. 

Fortunately for me, I’m a stubborn person, I was determined to get to university no matter how long it took. Unfortunately for me, my old sixth form wouldn’t take me back, so I enrolled in a local college with one of London’s worst record for further educational attainment. It was one of many institutions that thrived under David Cameron’s premiership that was more interested in cramming as many pupils as possible to gain the maximum amount of funding from central government. But I digress, I had some excellent tutors who cared for the success of me and my classmates. With their help, I left college with three A grades. 

The reason I told you this story is not for you to feel sorry for me, but to provide anecdotal evidence that the most disadvantaged of pupils can excel in the worst environments. That is the beauty I find in examinations. Whether you attend the most expensive independent school in the country or one of the worst-performing state schools, everyone takes the same examination where they can shine as individuals. 

So, when the government announced that GCSE and A-Level examinations (as well as their Scottish equivalents) would be cancelled due the China virus pandemic, I knew trouble was brewing. Results were instead to be based on predicted grades and class performance as determined by teachers. 

Most controversially, Ofqual (the examinations regulator) determined that grades would also be adjusted based on past school performance. This adjustment is most concerning because the worst-performing schools tend to state schools in the most deprived areas, while the best performing schools tend to be grammar schools (which are effectively glorified independent schools for middle-class pupils funded by the taxpayer) and independent schools. In the worst-case scenario, this means that a bright pupil in an underperforming state school would have their grades adjusted downwards, while a floundering pupil at Highgate School would have their grades adjusted upwards. This is exactly what has happened in Scotland for all its examinations, where students are now protesting against the “postcode lottery”. 

Now in the rest of the UK, Ofqual has just announced that schools will be able to appeal results on behalf of its pupils, but that simply isn’t good enough. Results day is a chaotic affair where A-Level pupils are scrambling to find a university place if they don’t make the required grades, and GCSE pupils face a similar situation when applying to selective sixth forms. God knows how long the appeals process will be, by which time places at their selected university/sixth form would likely be filled. Many universities now use demographic data when sending offers to applicants, giving them some leeway to those from deprived backgrounds by lowering entry requirements, so it is absurd that the Department for Education is sanctioning the process of making it more difficult for poorer pupils to thrive.  

But even if the adjustment process was removed, it will still do very little to change the disparity in results because they will still be based on predictions. 

Predicted grades are problematic for a number of reasons. For one, independent schools tend to overpredict the grades of their pupils, while state schools tend to underpredict theirs. But the issue goes further when factoring in demographics within schools. Sociologists believe that teachers subconsciously label pupils based on gender, social class and race. Black pupils are more likely to be negatively labelled than their white classmates for example, and this will factor into how teachers have issued predicted grades. I will not be surprised then, come results day, of the headline on BBC News of the shocking downwards adjustments of many pupils. 

It is easy for those of us who are now in university or have started careers to simply not care about this, it doesn’t directly affect you after all. But all I can imagine is being one of those pupils with no control over their future. If I was in this year’s cohort of A-level pupils, it is very likely my results would have been downgraded because my parents could not afford to place me in private education, which still dominated by a privileged few. That alone makes me angry, but the consequences are much graver. Education is a path towards social mobility, which has stalled during a near-decade of Tory rule. The disparities in educational achievement will have a ripple effect on successive years, as independent schools continue to teach pupils online, a resource that is still a luxury in one of the most developed nations in the world. I fear it will take another decade to repair the damage caused by the pandemic and the government’s inept response to it.

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