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GCSE and A level exams are cancelled. Will predicted grades have an adverse effect on black students?



Following the government’s decision to close schools and cancel examinations due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Department for Education confirmed that students of GCSEs and A-levels would instead be graded using the predictions of their teachers.

You can check the government’s own website here to see how they will be calculated.

These grades can have massive repercussions for a child’s future life chances – GCSE grades influence whether pupils can go on to further education and which subjects they can study, while A level results determine which university students will get accepted by.

Predicted grades are problematic for a number of reasons.  Firstly, students of all races may apply themselves more and improve their final grade after getting disappointing marks in their mock exams. Also, predicted grades are based not on a students’ abilities, but rather on the teacher’s subjective opinion of the pupil’s aptitude, which may be influenced by factors other than their ability.

There is no doubt that the concern expressed by many black parents and pupils is shared by some educationalists.

2016 study carried out by University College London’s Institute of Education found that just 16% of predicted A-level results are correct; only one in six university applicants will achieve the grades they were predicted.

For black students the problem of the negative perceptions of teachers is exacerbated.

2011 research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found black applicants had the lowest predicted grade accuracy, with only 39.1 per cent of predicted grades accurate.

EQUAL’s own Head of Policy, Shadae Cazeau, had a pertinent experience when she was at school:

“My history teacher predicted that I would get a D in my GCSE. And that was just because he didn’t particularly like me.  I went on to get an A grade. If I was relying on my predicted grades, I may have lost out on the opportunity to go to the college of my choice, which could have hindered my future prospects.”

Academics and those working in education have long been aware of this racial bias when looking at the issue of school exclusions.

As revealed some years ago by the Department for Education, black Caribbean children, are three and a half times more likely to be excluded than all other children at primary, secondary and special schools. These are disparities that exist not necessarily because of any underlying propensity to cause trouble, but because educators perceive black children as fundamentally disruptive and academically inferior.

Dr Zubaida Haque, Deputy Director of The Runnymede Trust told HuffPost UK:

“While schools are operating in exceptional circumstances during the Covid-19 pandemic, we still need to ensure that cross-checking and quality assurance processes are put in place for grade assessments – both at school-level and externally – to minimise the effects of individual teacher bias. We’re also concerned that using predicted grades alone for university admissions will further increase existing race and class inequalities in Britain’s universities.”

BAME students tend to be concentrated in less prestigious institutions. The Sunday Times's Good University Guide notes that nearly three quarters of the student intake at universities like Aston and Bradford are from ethnic minorities. Contrast this with universities that rank highest like Oxford, Cambridge, and St Andrews which languish at the bottom in terms of social inclusion.

Studies show that ethnic minority applicants to the most selective universities are less likely to receive offers, even when they may have the same grades as their white counterparts. 

If black A level students are to rely on the predicted grades from their teachers to gain admission, these disparity issues are likely to increase.

In the DoE guidance, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had advice for parents who feel that their children have been hard done by:

“We recognise that some students may feel disappointed that they haven’t been able to sit their exams. If they do not believe the correct process has been followed in their case they will be able to appeal on that basis. In addition, if they do not feel their calculated grade reflects their performance, they will have the opportunity to sit an exam at the earliest reasonable opportunity, once schools are open again. Students will also have the option to sit their exams in summer 2021.”

Unfortunately that is of little comfort to A level students currently in the midst of this confusion, as one who wishes to remain anonymous explains.

“What worries me and many other A Level students is whether we will have enough time to appeal to get onto the university courses we’ve been offered. The new system has also meant that our teachers and support networks in college have been cut off because we can’t discuss our predictions with them and we’re left guessing by ourselves. But it’s a very worrying thought now, that our futures depend on such a potentially biased system and that we aren’t able to discuss it with our teachers before the grades are made final.”

In a statement, the Racial Justice Network said:

“Like the closure of schools, the cancellation of examinations is an entirely necessary and proportionate response to the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that any solutions to the cancellation of exams do not exacerbate already existing race and class inequalities.” 

BTEG’s Chief Executive Jeremy Crook OBE shared his concerns:

 “The cancellation of GCSE/A-level examinations is understandable but frustrating for young people that have worked extremely hard. Their life chances depend on these predictions. At the end of the process a race equality analysis should be conducted showing there were no race disparities, especially for black students.”


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