Sat. Oct 1st, 2022
Experts have warned of an unfair “North-South divide” in A-level results due out on Thursday, due to the “disproportionate” impact of Covid lockdowns on disadvantaged pupils.

Thousands of teens are due to get their results, with university places riding on their outcomes.

Those awaiting results this year already face a tougher outcome than the previous two cohorts, due to an attempt to start bringing standards back in line after two years of pandemic grade inflation.

But experts say the grading model used by exams regulator Ofqual could increase inequalities because it does not reflect the differing lesson times missed due to Covid-19.

Research by analysts from FFT Education Datalab, published by TES earlier this year, revealed a North-South split.

Pupils in the North East missed 15.3 per cent of lessons in 2020/21 and the autumn term 2021/22; with 15.2 per cent missed in Yorkshire and Humber, and 15.1 per cent in the North West.

That compared with just 11.6 per cent of lessons lost in London, 11.8 per cent in the East, and 11.9 per cent in the South East.

The data was for this year’s Year 11, but similar differences are likely to exist within this year’s A-level cohort.

Chris Zarraga, director of regional schools network Schools North East, said he feared regional discrepancies would have “quite a disproportionate impact on the results picture” on Thursday.

“When you look at the amount of missed lessons, or the impact of lockdowns, over the last two years, it’s disproportionately hit the most disadvantaged students across the board,” he told i.

“The problem is that areas like the North East have much much bigger disadvantaged cohorts so the impact is disproportionate on regions like ours.”

Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said that the levels of learning lost had been “completely different” across different parts of the UK, with the problem exacerbated by a slow Government response.

According to the partnership’s research, the proportion of children classified as long-term disadvantaged and at high risk of lower educational attainment is particularly concentrated in the North of England.

This group constitutes 10.1 per cent of all 16-year-olds in the North East, 7.3 per cent in the North West, and 6 per cent in Yorkshire – compared with 2.8 per cent in Greater London.

School leaders and researchers have also warned that children in poorer parts of the UK were less likely to have had access to adequate remote learning and IT resources.

Some deprived areas such as Greater Manchester saw disproportionately prolonged and repeated lockdowns, meaning children spent more time away from the classroom as schools shut their doors.

Mr Murison said: “The DfE’s laptop initiative was botched and slow to hand out devices to many schools, so kids were not learning effectively at home.”

He added that the National Tutoring Programme, which was designed to support those disproportionately impacted, had failed to account for the gap.

Mr Murison also suggested that the leniency granted Covid-hit cohorts by the exam boards had not helped to even out educational divides because it had been “applied to every child”, and thus failed to account for the discrepancies in their experiences.

“If you went to a boarding school that was shut off from the world and never had to quarantine, you’re sitting the same exam as a child who didn’t have a laptop in the first lockdown and then would be sent home from school repeatedly,” Mr Murison said.

He also noted that this gap in attainment levels at ages 16 to 18 could have a long-term effect: “It’s not like this is just a short-term thing. This has huge implications for people’s lives.”

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Jonny Uttley, CEO of the Education Alliance academy chain based in Yorkshire, said his biggest concern was inequality in access to IT during the pandemic.

“I think the biggest thing for me [was] not so much the amount of school time missed but actually what availability of equipment students have,” he added.

“In our trust, we were given 390 laptops for students by the Government, we bought another 590 on top of that because in order to do live learning.

“If there are four siblings in the house they need four laptops. They also need unlimited data internet access, and some of our schools serve communities that have very poor broadband, so we were providing dongles and all sorts of things.

“I think the differential absence will have an impact. But also, in more affluent areas where a higher proportion of students have access to better IT equipment and better broadband, that could potentially have an impact, and that’s something that people will really be looking out for when the results are published.”

Mr Zarraga added: “The rough picture over the last two years has been that the most disadvantaged areas have been hit hardest by Covid, so they were locked down for longer, you then had a kind of Covid hokey-cokey once the schools had reopened fully again”, with students being sent home to isolate due to outbreaks, and some pupils missing up to two months of term.

“But on top of that you’ve got issues around school’s ability to deliver high-quality online learning in the first lockdown, and then the students’ resources and access to online learning,” he said.

“Those disadvantaged communities are far less likely to have IT equipment to access online learning, they were less likely to have a learning space, or access to broadband and data.”

Mr Zarraga said there were also “huge issues with parental ability to support children with their learning for things like downloading workbooks and things like that”.

A-level grading change

Under the model adopted by Ofqual, as few as 35 per cent of A-level entries are likely to receive an A or A* grade tomorrow, compared to 44.8 per cent last year and 38.5 per cent in 2021. It will be higher than the 25.5 per cent in 2019, but will vary by region.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, said he was worried about “stark regional inequalities” in A-level grades, “most likely to mean there will be a North-South divide”.

Clare Marchant, CEO of universities admissions body Ucas, also acknowledged there were likely to be regional inequalities in results.

“There are disparities regionally,” she told i. “One of the things we’ve been working on with universities is providing things like individual free school meals data so they can take that into account when making decisions.

“I would say that a lot of this starts well before the age of 18, that attainment gap between, perhaps, schools in the North East v[schools in] London, you’ll be able to track right back into primary and early years.”

Education Secretary James Cleverly said: “Every single student collecting their results today should be proud of their achievements. Not only have they studied throughout the pandemic, but they are the first group in three years to sit exams.

“For that, I want to congratulate them and say a huge thank you to those who helped them get to this point.

“Despite the nerves that people will feel, I want to reassure anyone collecting their results that whatever your grades, there has never been a better range of opportunities available.

“Whether going on to one of our world-leading universities, a high-quality apprenticeship, or the world of work, students have exciting options as they prepare to take their next steps.”

Ofqual and JCQ declined to comment.

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