A Levels and University Access 2021 - Sutton Trust

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A Levels and University Access 2021 - Sutton Trust
RESEARCH BRIEF                JULY 2021

                           A Levels and University
                                Access 2021
Erica Holt-White and Carl Cullinane

  KEY FINDINGS                                                     state schools and those with lower Ofsted ratings.
  Impact on learning                                               • 52% of teachers working in the most deprived schools
                                                                   of the country thought the support they received to
  • More than a quarter (27%) of university applicants
                                                                   determine grades was insufficient compared to 44% of
  from a working class background struggled with
                                                                   those working in schools in the most affluent areas.
  insufficient study space at home this year, compared to
  16% of those in middle class households. 7% reported             • 23% of teachers at private schools report that parents
  lacking sufficient internet access.                              had approached or pressured them about their child’s
                                                                   grade this year, compared to 17% at more affluent state
  • 15% of applicants studying in private schools
                                                                   schools, and 11% at the least affluent.
  received one to one tutoring this year, compared to 9%
  at state school.                                                 • Students’ views are more positive this year than in
                                                                   2020, with fewer anticipating that their grades will be
  • 69% feel they have fallen behind with their studies
                                                                   harmed, and more agreeing that the system is as fair or
  due to the disruption, with many also feeling that they
                                                                   more fair than a typical year. Anxieties around fairness
  have fallen behind even in comparison to their peers.
                                                                   also eased between April and June this year.
  37% of state school applicants felt this, compared to
  25% of private school students.                                  • However, almost half (49%) of state school applicants
                                                                   said they didn’t feel confident that they would have the
                                                                   right information and support if they needed to appeal
  • There was significant variety in the intensity of A            their grades. Applicants from independent schools were
  Level assessment undertaken by students. The most                less likely to not feel confident (43%).
  common number of mini-exams/in class assessments
  per subject reported by teachers was three or four
                                                                   University applications and entry
  (38%). However 18% reported two or fewer, and 18%                • University applications this year are at record levels,
  more than six. There were few differences between the            including from under-represented groups. The number
  state and the private sector, or across different types of       of offers made by selective universities have also
  school.                                                          risen from last year, but the offer rate (the ratio of
                                                                   applications to offers) has dropped by 5 percentage
  • 96% of teachers report at least one assessment sat
                                                                   points, meaning entry is more competitive. In contrast,
  under exam conditions was used for calculating A Level
                                                                   the offer rate has risen at less selective universities.
  grades. 63% reported using mock exams, 80% reported
  using past papers, and 35% reported assessments                  • Half of this year’s applicants feel that the pandemic
  written by teachers themselves. Some schools used                disruption will negatively impact their chance of getting
  home (13%) or previous classroom work (17%).                     into their first choice university, particularly those
                                                                   applying to Russell Group institutions (56%).
  • Independent schools were more likely than state
  schools to use a wider variety of assessments, including         • However some anxieties have eased since the Spring,
  giving prior access to questions and ‘open book’                 with 47% of applicants worried about getting into
  assessments. More affluent state schools and those               their first university in June, down from 62% in April.
  with higher Ofsted ratings were more likely to use mock          Nonetheless, many feel unprepared to start university
  exams and assessments based on past papers. The                  this autumn. Those from a state school are more than
  opposite was true for homework and classroom work,               twice as likely to feel unprepared– 36% compared to
  which were more likely to be used by more deprived               17% of private school applicants.

INTRODUCTION                              their exams and assessment, and               of pupils, particularly those without
                                          the transition to their next steps in         a laptop, internet connection or
In the wake of last summer’s
                                          education.                                    suitable space to study, or with lower
disruption to the Higher Education
                                          Since the pandemic first hit in March         levels of provision from their school.1
entry process, this year’s cohort of
young people finishing school and         2020, schools and colleges have               Even when schools and colleges
college have faced their second           had two major periods of closure and          have been able to open, many
consecutive year of disruption to their   enforced remote teaching. This had            year groups and class ‘bubbles’
education, impacting their schooling,     a significant impact on the learning          have been sent home to isolate for
days at a time after coming into            the fairness of any national exam,              steady, overall averages can disguise
contact with someone infected with          creating dilemmas for Ofqual and the            patterns under the surface.11 For
Covid-19. Again, this has affected          UK’s other regulators.                          example, the FSM attainment gap for
disadvantaged pupils the most,2             In November 2020, Wales announced               C and over narrowed by 2 percentage
and more closures have been seen            that GCSEs, AS and A Levels were                points, but for A and over widened by
in the North of England as well as          to be cancelled, and in December,               2 percentage points.
London compared to elsewhere in             Scotland announced that Higher                  In 2021 pupils’ grades will be
the South.3 Much emerging evidence          exams would no longer take place                determined by teachers, without
has demonstrated the effect these           (National 5s had already been                   any adjustment by algorithm, using
disruptions have had on educational         cancelled in October). In January,              assessment of content relating to only
progress in school, with a particular       England followed suit by announcing             topics their class had been taught.12
impact on those from disadvantaged          that exams would be cancelled and               While such an approach could help
backgrounds.4                               replaced once again by teacher                  to account for schools having been
And while the education of pupils           assessed grades.                                able to cover varying amounts of
of all ages has been affected,              Faced with another year of no exams,            the curriculum, The Trust has been
disadvantaged students in post-             changes were clearly required to                concerned about individual-level
16 education are at a particularly          avoid the chaos of last year’s grading          differences in learning loss, most
crucial time in their lives. Those who      system, when a combination of                   likely to impact disadvantaged pupils
entered post-16 education in 2019           teacher ranking and an algorithm was            who were less likely to have fully
have faced two years of disrupted           initially used to calculate students’           accessed home learning. With schools
education, and are now facing a             grades. While overall, socio-economic           free to use many different types of
crucial transition period, with very        attainment gaps remained steady                 assessment to inform grades, with no
little time left to catch up before         compared to previous years8 the                 external marking and only light touch
they move into further study or             enforced maintenance of these gaps,             moderation, there are also significant
employment.                                 as well as many cases of individual             worries about consistency and
The government has announced                unfairness, led to public outrage.              fairness.13 In such circumstances of
several interventions over this time        Particular issues arose for high                uncertainty, particularly when stakes
to help secondary school pupils,            performing disadvantaged pupils                 are high, it is often the schools and
from the setup of the National              in deprived areas,9 with the grades             parents with the greatest resources
Tutoring Programme (which has now           system seen as a cap on aspiration.             and ‘savvy’ that are most adept at
enrolled over 240,000 pupils)5 to           This system also generated significant          navigating these complex waters.
the provision of laptops to students        uncertainty amongst university
to allow them to participate in online      applicants, with Sutton Trust research
lessons.6 However, the support              finding that 34% anticipated that
                                                                                        ENTRY TO UNIVERSITY IN
provided to students in post-16             they were more likely to require            2021
education has been lacking. The             UCAS Clearing or Adjustment due             Uncertainty remains over university
‘recovery premium’ (additional              to the pandemic and almost 1 in 3           entry this year. Despite widespread
funding for disadvantaged pupils to         expecting to miss out on their first-       anxiety, and the chaos of the grades
help them ‘catch up’, announced in          choice university as a consequence of       controversy, last year saw record
early 2021), the pupil premium and          the disruption.10 After the backlash,       numbers of disadvantaged 18-year-
the National Tutoring Programme all         the system then went back to using          olds accepted into university.14
end at age 16, excluding a generation       teacher assessed grades to determine        In the circumstances, many
of students coming to the end of their      final grades, and although the average      universities accepted significantly
compulsory education, and proposals         socio-economic gaps still remained          higher numbers of students than a
to date have fallen short
of what is needed to fully       Figure 1: Higher Education application rate, UK domiciled 18 year olds, June deadline 2011-2021
support pupils.7
Examinations as well as
learning have been affected.                                               48.2%                                       48.2%
                                         47.8%                                                                46.9%
After so much class time         50%
was missed, it became                                                                                         39.5%
clear from the beginning of                                                                                                    37.9%
                                 40%                                       36.1%
                                         34.9%                                                                         33.6%
this academic year that it                                                 31.7%                              32.9%
would be hugely challenging      30%
                                                                           32.5%                              32.7%    32.3%
for examinations (both at                30.8%
GCSE and A Level, as well
as equivalent qualifications
in the UK such as Scottish
Highers) to resume in their      10%
pre-pandemic form. As the
autumn wore on, it emerged        0%
that school closures were                2011    2012   2013       2014     2015     2016    2017    2018     2019     2020    2021
falling unevenly, threatening                            England          Scotland      Wales       Northern Ireland

                                                               2                                                        Source: UCAS
normal year, particularly selective            university. It looks at applicants’                students in April 2021 and 463 in
universities, which proved a boon              concerns about starting university                 June 2021 through YouthSight.18
for access. However, it is not clear           in the autumn as well as the views                 When thinking about the most
that we will see similar patterns              of both teachers and university                    recent period of lockdowns and
in access this year, with the whole            applicants on this year’s grading                  school closures, 4% of the young
admissions cycle taking place in a             system.                                            people surveyed reported they
new context, whereas the pandemic                                                                 had insufficient access to a sole
only impacted the final stages of                                                                 computer, tablet, or laptop to work on
admissions in 2020. Indeed, patterns           LEARNING IN LOCKDOWN                               (Figure 2). This figure has reduced
of applications and offers for UK              Even more so than last year’s cohort,              since our previous polling in April
students are markedly different in             students heading to university                     2020,19 where 9% did not have sole
2021, with a substantial increase in           this year have had a substantially                 access to an internet-enabled device,
18 year olds applying to university in         disrupted education due to                         most likely due to the government’s
all four nations (Figure 1). The overall       nationwide lockdowns and school                    scheme (as part of strategies to
application rate has leapt to 43.3%            closures across two years of their                 improve internet access at home, as
in 2021, from 40.5% in 2020 and                education. Many have also spent                    referenced above), as well as efforts
38.9% in 2019.                                 time at home even when schools                     from charities and businesses to
Whilst UCAS have seen increases in             have been open, due to their school                provide free laptops for disadvantaged
the number of offers from selective            or bubble closing, or needing to                   young people. 7% of applicants
institutions, even higher than                 self-isolate due to having Covid-19.               said they had insufficient access
last year,15 there are reports from            Without a classroom environment                    to the internet. This is the same
headteachers that students set to              to work in, access to the internet as              figure as when we polled university
achieve top grades have missed out             well as a suitable space to work at                applicants in April 2020, despite
on offers from all their choices.16            home became a necessity to continue                the government’s scheme to provide
Some universities have expressed               learning, revising, and applying to                internet dongles to those without
concern about grade inflation (the             university.                                        a connection as part of education
2020 A level grades, eventually based          To investigate this year’s university              recovery plans.20 Issues with internet
on teacher assessment, were the                applicants’ experience of learning                 coverage and bandwidth needs for
highest ever), with worries that more          and preparing for university at home;              an increase in online lessons during
applicants will meet the conditions of         how applicants feel about this year’s              more recent lockdowns may explain
their offers than some universities are        grading system; and concerns about                 this.
able to accommodate.                           starting university, we polled 497 UK              Access to a suitable space to study
With coronavirus still circulating
in summer 2021, concerns among
                                                Figure 2: Access to the internet, tech and a suitable study space by socio-economic group
students also remain about what the
university experience will be like in                                                        7%
the next academic year, with social                       Internet access
mixing restrictions (such as holding
lectures online and delaying freshers
week)17 possibly in place.                                Access to tech
This research brief considers how the
pandemic has disrupted education                                                                               16%
for this year’s cohort of university              Suitable space to study
applicants, changed the nature of
A level assessments and affected
students’ transition from school to                                                     ABC1      C2DE

                                                                                                  Source: Youthsight student polling, April 2021
 Figure 3: Satisfaction with support for learning by school type

         State funded school         22%                                    52%                          5%       15%          6%

               Private school               33%                                        50%                        4%      13%

                Very satisfied     Fairly satisfied       Not sure/ don’t know     Fairly unsatisfied         Not at all satisfied

                                                                       3                           Source: Youthsight student polling, April 2021
Figure 4: Views on falling behind by school type
at home has also remained an issue,
with 19% of applicants saying they                'I have fallen behind my peer group'
had insufficient study space (up from                                                          37%
17% in April 2020). As discussed in                                                  25%
previous Sutton Trust research,21 as                                                                        56%
school provision for online learning                                                                           63%
increased in 2021 compared to the               Not sure/don't            7%
previous year, so did expectations                  know                       13%
on pupils, whether in terms of
internet strength for online lessons,            'I have fallen behind with my studies'
or suitable space to engage with                                                                                      70%
them. 27% of those from a working-
class background said they had                                                          27%
insufficient access to a study space                 Disagree
- 11 percentage points more than                Not sure/don't          4%
those from a middle-class background                know                 6%
As shown in Figure 3, whilst out of                                  State funded school      Private school
the classroom, the vast majority of
applicants (75%) thought that the                                                           Source: Youthsight student polling, June 2021
support and resources for learning
provided by their school was                  Figure 5: Average number of mini exams/in class assessments used by teachers
satisfactory. This is 7 percentage            to determine GCSE and A Level grades
points up compared to the first
lockdown in April 2020 when 68%                       More than 6                                   21%
of applicants said they were satisfied.                                                           18%
Nonetheless, a sizeable proportion
(20%) were not satisfied. Those at                            5-6                                     24%
a state school were 8 percentage                                                                      24%
points more likely to be dissatisfied
compared to those at a private school                         3-4                                                      38%
(21% compared to 13%).
To further support students missing                                                        13%
out on class time, some students                                                            14%
have started (or carried on) receiving
private tutoring. 10% of applicants                           None             3%
said they had received tutoring paid                                            4%
for either by their school or family.
This is only slightly more than during          Don’t know/unsure           2%
the first lockdown in March 2020,
where 8% of children were accessing
private tuition (albeit based on a                                               GCSE       A level
larger sample of pupils from all
year groups),22 despite additional            Source: Teacher Tapp survey of teachers, June 2021 (Excludes those who said ‘Not Relevant’)
funding for tuition for 16-19 year
olds being announced in February of       than those from a private school                  feeling that they had fallen behind
this year.23 Those at a private school    (70% compared to 67% respectively)                their peer group (42%) compared
were 6 percentage points more likely      (Figure 4).                                       to 31% of white applicants. While
to report receiving tutoring at 15%                                                         measuring how far someone has
                                          Furthermore, 36% of applicants
compared to 9% of those at a state                                                          ‘fallen behind’ is difficult, particularly
                                          agreed with the statement ‘I have
school.                                                                                     for older pupils, young people’s
                                          fallen behind my peer group as a
10% of those at a private school          result of the pandemic’. 37% of                   perception of their performance is an
reported that this tutoring had been      applicants from a state school felt               important factor in their wellbeing
paid for by their school, compared to     they had fallen behind compared                   and in shaping their aspirations.
only 2% of those at state schools.        to a 25% of private school
In June, 69% of applicants agreed         applicants. Those from working class              ASSESSMENT AND GRADING
with the statement ‘I have fallen         backgrounds were slightly more
                                          likely to feel they had fallen behind             Following last year’s grading
behind with my studies compared
                                          compared to those from middle                     controversy, where students were
to where I would have been without
                                          class backgrounds (37% compared                   unable to sit examinations and grades
the disruption’, with 30% saying that
                                          to 34% respectively). Applicants                  were generated by an algorithm, it
they strongly agree. Applicants from
                                          from an ethnic minority background                was decided that teachers would set
a state school were slightly more
                                          were also more likely to report                   the grades of their pupils using a
likely to agree with the statement
chosen set of assessment materials,         similar for GCSEs, with 3-4                      had prior access to the questions in
and these would not be statistically        assessments also being the most                  their assessments, 14% said their
adjusted.24 To find out more about          common number (reported by 38%                   students could see the mark schemes
the materials being used to assess          of GCSE teachers). More data on the              before completing their assessments
students this year and what teachers’       types of assessments being used to               and 12% said the assessments were
views are on the new process, we            determine this year’s GCSE grades                ‘open book’ (where students have
polled 3,221 teachers in England            can be found in Appendix A.                      access to supporting materials like a
through polling platform Teacher Tapp       In terms of the type of assessments              textbook). A small number of teachers
in June.25                                  being taken, almost all A-Level                  (2%) said the same papers were used
As shown in Figure 5, the number            teachers (96%) said that at least one            multiple times to decide grades.
of ‘mini exams’ and-or assessments          assessment sat in exam conditions           While the use of exam condition
teachers are using to determine             had been used to determine TAGs this        assessments was consistent across
A level Teacher Assessed Grades             year (shown in Figure 6). 80% used          all school types, independent schools
(TAGs) appears to be mixed. The             assessments based on past papers,           were more likely than state schools
most common number was 3-4                  63% used mock examinations, and             to offer students prior access to
assessments per subject, with 38%           35% used assessments written by             questions (24% v 19% in the state
of teachers reporting this. 18% of          teachers themselves. 17% reported           sector), marking schemes (19% v
A level teachers said they set 6 or         including previous classroom work,          13%) and ‘open book’ assessments
more assessments for their class            and 13% used homework. 20% of               (18% v 11%).
this year, 24% said 5-6, and 14%            teachers reported that their students       Schools with more affluent intakes,
said 1-2. A small
proportion (4%) of
teachers said they      Figure 6: Type of assessments used by A-level teachers to determine grades
set no mini exams                Assessments sat under exam conditions                                                      96%
and-or assessments
                                      Assessments based on past papers                                               80%
for their class.
While broadly                                                Mock exams                                     63%
similar patterns                        Assessments written by teachers                       35%
were reported by
university applicants         Assessments with prior access to questions             20%
sitting A Levels                                 Previous classroom work           17%
or equivalent
                          Assessments with prior access to mark schemes           14%
33% reported in                                                Homework          13%
June that they had                               Open book assessments           12%
taken 6 or more
mini exams or           Assessments using the same paper multiple times   2%
assessments per                                            None of these  1%
Patterns were                                   Source: Teacher Tapp survey of teachers, June 2021 (Excludes those who said ‘Not Relevant’)

 Figure 7: Teacher views on support and guidance to determine grades by level of deprivation in school







                      Net sufficient                              Net insufficient                              Don't know / Unsure

                                              Private   Q1 (affluent)   Q2     Q3     Q4 (deprived)

                                                 Source: Teacher Tapp survey of teachers, June 2021 (Excludes those who said ‘Not Relevant’)
and those with higher Ofsted              Figure 8: Teacher confidence in this year’s grading system
ratings, were more likely to use
mock exams (64% in the most                     Very confident                       12%
affluent compared to 55% in the
most deprived) and assessments
based on past papers (80%                     Quite confident                                                                         46%
compared to 74%). The opposite
was true for previous classroom
work (14% v 18%).
                                                Not confident                                          25%
Whilst just over half (52%) of
teachers, at both GCSE and A
Level, said they had received             Not at all confident                        13%
sufficient support and guidance to
determine grades this year, 46%
found the support insufficient            Don’t know/unsure             3%
(Figure 7). Teachers working in
the most deprived schools of the
                                                 Source: Teacher Tapp survey of teachers, June 2021 (Excludes those who said ‘Not Relevant’)
country were 8 percentage points
more likely to report the support
they received as insufficient             Figure 9: Whether a parent/s had pressured teachers over their child’s grades by level of
compared to those working in              deprivation in school
schools in the most affluent
areas (52% compared to 44%
respectively). Those working in
state schools were also more likely
to say the support they received          20%
was insufficient - 47% reported
this compared to 41% of teachers
working in private schools.               15%
As shown in Figure 8, the majority                                       9%              5%
(58%) of teachers are ‘very’ or           10%
‘quite’ confident about the system                                                                                        6%
in place to determine grades
this year. However, 39% are not
                                            5%                                          10%
confident about the system, with                                         7%
                                                        6%                                                                6%
13% saying they are ‘not at all’                                                                        5%
confident. Views appear to be
consistent in state schools across                    Private        Q1 (affluent)       Q2             Q3           Q4 (deprived)
levels of deprivation, with 40%
                                                                        Yes, one   Yes, more than one
of teachers in the most deprived
schools ‘not’ or ‘not at all’ confident
in the system and 38% of those
working in the most affluent
                                        Figure 10: Impacts applicants think this year’s grading system will have on their own grades
schools saying the same. However, comparing 2021 to 2020
47% of private school teachers
were not confident about the                                                           4%
                                           I think my grades will be much better
system compared to 37% of state                                                     2%
school teachers.
                                         I think my grades will be slightly better                                 23%
With grades in the hands of                                                                              15%
teachers rather than exam boards
this year, there are concerns that      I think my grades will be about the same                                                               43%
teachers may feel pressurised by
parents to change their child’s
                                          I think my grades will be slightly worse                           18%
grades.26 15% of teachers said                                                                                                     35%
that a parent had approached
and/or pressured them about                I think my grades will be much worse            4%
their child’s grades this year                                                                  8%
– 8% reported that multiple
                                                             Not sure/don’t know                  9%
parents had done so. 23% of                                                                  6%
teachers at private schools said
than one or more parents have
                                                                                      2021      2020
approached and/or pressured
them, which was 9 percentage                                                          Source: Youthsight student polling, April 2021 and 2020

points more than those working                 to a smaller 40% of private school             49% of applicants said they felt
in a state school (14%), and were              students. Interestingly, this year,            unconfident that they would have
more than twice as likely than state           49% of middle-class applicants                 the correct information and support
school teachers to say they had been           thought the system would be less               needed to appeal their grades if
approached by more than one parent             fair compared to 35% of those from             they are unhappy, whilst 39% said
(16% compared to 7% respectively)              working class backgrounds.                     they felt confident. 18% said they
(shown in Figure 9). 17% of teachers           Whether grades could be appealed               were ‘not at all confident’ about the
working in schools with the most               was a controversial element of the             process. As shown in Figure 12, those
affluent intakes said they had been            approach to assessment last year,              from a state school were 6 percentage
approached and/or pressured by at              as appeals could only be made if               points more likely to feel unconfident
least one parent; 6 percentage points          a pupil’s school or college thought            compared to private school
more than those working in schools in          that unreliable data was used to               applicants, with 49% compared to
the most deprived areas (11%).                 standardise grades.27 This year,               43% reporting that they felt ‘not
                                               students are able to appeal if they            confident’ or ‘not at all confident’.
Applicant views                                                                               Furthermore, 55% of applicants
                                               feel that their TAG is wrong, firstly
Young people are generally more                by asking for a review by their centre         from an ethnic minority background
positive about the outcomes of this            and then logging the appeal with               felt unconfident about making an
year’s exam system than last year.             the awarding body. However, there              appeal, compared to 46% of white
In April, 43% of students thought              have been warnings that if there are           applicants.
that their grades would be about               a high number of appeals, this could
the same as they would have been               cause problems for the university
in a typical year (Figure 10). This                                                           GETTING INTO UNIVERSITY
                                               admissions process.28
is higher than in April 2020, when                                                            As well as the impacts on learning,
only 34% of applicants thought this.           Taking these changes into account,             pandemic disruption has also meant
26% of applicants thought that their
grades would be better than those               Figure 11: Views of applicants on the fairness of the new grading system comparing
they would get in a typical year (up            2021 to 2020
from 17% in April 2020), whilst
22% thought they would be worse                      Much more fair                     11%
(significantly down from 2020 when
43% thought this). Those at a state             Somewhat more fair                                                  32%
school were slightly more likely to
think their grades would be worse at                                               8%
                                                         No change                 8%
22%, compared to 19% of those at
private schools.                                                                                                29%
                                                 Somewhat less fair                                                                  43%
When asked two months later in
June after the assessment period was                                                        16%
                                                     Much less fair
complete, applicants’ thoughts on                                                                                29%
this year’s grading system appeared
                                               Not sure/don’t know           5%
to be more mixed, with 42% of                                             3%
students believing the system would
be fairer than in a typical year and                                               June '21      April '20
45% believing it will be less fair. This
is far less than the 72% of applicants
                                                                            Source: Youthsight student polling, June 2021 and April 2020
who in April 2020 believed last year’s
system would
be less fair than    Figure 12: Applicants' confidence in making appeals by school type
normal (Figure
11). 8%
thought there       State funded school 6%                   33%                  12%                    31%                        18%
would be no
change. These
opinions were
stable before
and after the
period in                 Private school     10%                 36%                     12%                   29%                   14%
2021. 45% of
applicants from
a state school
thought that
                              Very confident   Quite confident   Don't know/unsure/not applicable     Not confident    Not at all confident
their grades
would be less
fair, compared                                                                                 Source: Youthsight student polling, June 2021

a significant amount of classroom         negative impact. 32% thought the             Starting university
time has been missed when students        impact was ‘large’ (Figure 14). This
                                                                                       The uncertainty around grades this
could ask teachers about their next       did not differ by social background.
                                                                                       year as well as what the university
steps following school and gain
advice on and support with         Figure 13: Satisfaction with support and advice on university application process comparing
putting together a personal        2021 to 2020
statement, visiting universities
and applying through UCAS.                 Very satisfied
Gaining this support from                                                          17%
teachers is particularly vital for
disadvantaged students who                Fairly satisfied
typically have less support from                                                                                      41%
family and friends at home.
When asked about how satisfied                                                      18%
                                         Fairly unsatisfied
they were with their school’s
support and advice on the
university application process,         Not at all satisfied
67% of students were either
very or fairly satisfied (up from
57% in April 2020, but lower         Not sure/ don’t know
than the equivalent figure
for satisfaction with school
support; as shown in Figure 13).                                              2021     2020
However, 28% were unsatisfied
with the support they received                                                 Source: Youthsight student polling, April 2021 and 2020
– those at a state school were more
than twice as likely to be unsatisfied,    Figure 14: Impact of pandemic on university application experience
with 29% of applicants reporting
this compared to 13% of those at a
                                              A large positive impact  0%
private school.
Not only have lockdowns impacted
                                                A small positive impact    2%
support with university applications
when at school, they have also
meant that visiting campuses and                            No impact                  15%
attending outreach programmes
has become more difficult (albeit              A small negative impact                                                    48%
many programmes, such as Sutton
Trust Summer Schools, have moved
                                                A large negative impact                                  32%
online).29 When considering how
pandemic-related restrictions have
impacted the university application                Not sure/don't know      3%
process this year, a significant
majority (80%) thought they have                                                           Source: Youthsight student polling, April 2021
had a
          Figure 15: Impact of the pandemic on getting into first-choice by institution type

          Russell Group 2%        14%                 21%                            37%                                 19%

              Pre 1992    5%            18%                        28%                          30%                        15%

             Post 1992    4%            18%                    22%                             30%                        15%

              A large positive impact    A small positive impact     No impact   A small negative impact       A large negative impact

                                                                                             Source: Youthsight student polling, April 2021

experience will be like next year (with      percentage points higher than White                 A large proportion of applicants
some universities already planning           applicants (50%). Applicants from                   (66%, albeit down slightly from 69%
to keep lectures online)30 have led to       a state school were also more likely                in April) also reported feeling worried
significant concern among students           to be concerned than those from a                   about the Covid restrictions that may
about the months ahead.                      private school (58% compared to                     be in place at university, with 19%
Taking lost learning, class time and         51% respectively).                                  saying they were very worried.
support into account, half (50%) of          47% were concerned about getting a                  There appears to be mixed feelings
this year’s university applicants feel       place at their first choice university,             amongst students regarding readiness
that the impact of the pandemic              down from 62% in April, with                        for university this autumn. Whilst
on schools and universities will             15% very worried. Those from an                     58% of applicants feel ready to start
negatively affect their chance               ethnic minority background were                     university (up from 55% in April),
of getting into their first-choice           again more likely to report this, at                34% feel unprepared (down from
university. This is broadly similar          62% compared to 41% of White                        40% in April). Strikingly, those from
to April 2020, when 48% felt the             applicants. 51% of applicants with                  a state school are more than twice as
pandemic would negatively affect             a Russell Group institution as their                likely to feel unprepared for starting
their chances. As shown in Figure            preference were worried about getting               university – 36% reported this
15, those applying to a Russell Group        their first choice, which was the                   compared to 17% of private school
university as a first choice were most       same as those applying to pre-1992                  applicants (Figure 17). Those from
likely to think the pandemic will            institutions (51%) but 14 percentage                an ethnic minority background were
negatively impact their chance of            points higher (37%) than post-1992                  more likely to say they do not feel
getting in, at 56% compared to 45%           institution applicants.                             ready, with 37% feeling unprepared
applying to a pre 1992 or post 1992          53% were concerned about being                      compared to 32% of applicants who
institution.                                 ready to start university in the autumn             are white.
When asked in April about their              (down slightly from 56% when asked
concerns over the coming months,             in April).                                          2021 Applications and Offers
78% were worried about their exams
and the assessment process, with
                                                Figure 16: Applicants' concerns over coming months comparing June 2021 to
33% very worried. Applicants at a               April 2020
state school were more likely to be
worried than those at a private school
                                                              Covid restrictions at university                                      69%
(79% compared to 70% respectively).                                                                                                66%
81% of applicants from an ethnic
minority background were worried – 4                                                  Grades                                            78%
percentage points higher than white                                                                                           58%
applicants (77%).
                                                   Being ready to start university in Autumn                                 56%
We asked applicants about their                                                                                             53%
concerns again in June, once most
applicants had completed all their                  Getting a place at first choice university                                  62%
assessments (Figure 16).31 58%
said were worried about their grades,
with 19% very worried. 73% of                                                          April '21      June '21
applicants from an ethnic minority
background were concerned – 23                                                  Source: Youthsight student polling, June 2021 and April 2020

           Figure 17: Readiness for university by school type

           State funded school      11%                             46%                            7%                 31%                 5%

                 Private school         19%                                      55%                                  9%       11%        6%

                  Yes, I feel very well prepared               Yes, I feel quite well prepared               Not sure/don't know
                  No, I feel quite unprepared                  No, I feel very unprepared

                                                                                                 Source: Youthsight student polling, June 2021

As highlighted in the               Figure 18: Higher education entry rate 2011-2020, by POLAR quintile
introduction, the last two          60.0%
years have seen increases                                                                                                     51.2%
in applications to university,      50.0%                                                 45.6%     46.1% 46.5% 47.4%
                                             43.9%                                  44.3%
accelerating the long-term                            41.8% 43.1% 43.4%
trend. Figure 18 shows              40.0%
that acceptances have
also surged, and that the           30.0%
growth is seen both in areas
of high participation and           20.0%                                                                                     23.3%
low participation. Record                                                                                            21.0%
                                                                                    17.5% 18.4% 19.3% 19.7%
numbers of young people                                                  16.6%
                                    10.0%    14.0% 14.1% 15.2%
entered higher education
in 2020 from areas of the            0.0%
lowest participation, rising to              2011     2012      2013      2014      2015   2016      2017      2018   2019     2020
23.3% from 21%. However,
                                                         Quintile 1 (low participation)    Quintile 2
this growth was outstripped
by areas of the country which                            Quintile 3                        Quintile 4
typically send high numbers                              Quintile 5 (high participation)
to university, (51.2%, up
                                                                                                                       Source: UCAS
from 47.4%), meaning the
gap in absolute terms between more
affluent and more disadvantaged               Figure 19: Applications and offers to high tariff universities, 2017-2021
areas grew once again. As Figure 18
shows, applications in 2021 have               700,000
surged again, however the impacts
on access, particularly to the most            600,000
selective universities, remains to be
UCAS data published by WonkHE                   400,000
has shown that applications to high
tariff universities have increased
by 12% this year.32 Similarly, low              200,000
tariff institutions saw 13% growth
in applications. For context, growth            100,000
in 2020 was around 3% in both
categories. However, as Figure 19                     -
                                                              2017         2018             2019        2020        2021
shows, growth in offers has not kept
up at selective institutions. While                                          Applications     Offers
offers from high tariff universities
have indeed increased this year, from                                                                       Source: WonkHE/UCAS
396,810 to 412,670, proportionally,
this is just a 4% increase. In              pandemic are having very different              growth, so with the possibility of
contrast, the number of offers at low       effects on different parts of the               some retrenchment this autumn, last
tariff universities has grown by 15%.       sector, with high demand for high               year’s gains may not be replicated.
The result is that the offer rate at        tariff universities, boosted by higher
high tariff universities (the proportion    grades, and increased competition
                                            for students amongst low tariff                 DISCUSSION
of applications that convert to
offers for places) has dropped by 5         universities, many of which face                Awarding grades
percentage points from 73.4% to             significant financial challenges.               This brief has highlighted how the
68.5%, while it has increased at            The impacts on equity and access                Covid-19 pandemic has continued
low tariff universities from 84.4% to       are less clear. Substantial gains to            to affect those taking school leaving
86.2% (Figure 20). This behaviour is        access to selective universities in             exams and applying to university this
likely to be driven by a combination        2020 may not be matched in 2021.                summer, particularly those from lower
of capacity constraints, when many          Data published by DataHE has                    socio-economic backgrounds. These
selective universities took on much         shown that, while offer rates for all           impacts have been across three broad
larger cohorts in 2020; along with          POLAR quintiles at such universities            areas: 1) impacts on learning, 2)
a reaction to the grade inflation of        are down, those in Quintile 1 have              impacts on exams and assessment,
last year. Anticipating similar or          fallen less, indicating that high tariff        and 3) impacts on the university
even higher grades in 2021, the             institutions are trying to ‘protect’            application and entry process itself.
most selective universities appear          under-represented groups from these             In all three areas, while young people
to be lowering their offer rate to          lower offer rates.33 Nonetheless, these         from all backgrounds have been
compensate. The impacts of the              groups do best in an environment of             affected, there are additional threats

to equity and fairness as the poorest          Figure 20: Offer rates by university tariff, 2017-2021
have been hardest hit.
                                                      90%                                                           86.2%
Urgent action is required from                                                 82.8%     83.3%         84.4%
                                                      85%      81.5%
schools, colleges, universities
and policymakers to ensure that                       80%
                                                                               82.2%     82.7%         82.7%        82.4%
all students have fair chance of                               80.2%
getting into and thriving during their
                                                      70%      73.6%           73.1%     73.1%         73.4%
time at their preferred institution.
Furthermore, as the effects of the                    65%                                                           68.5%
pandemic are unlikely to end after                    60%
this year, action will also likely be
necessary in future years to prevent
further barriers to access and                        50%
participation in higher education                     45%
for other year groups earlier in their
educational journey.                                            2017           2018       2019          2020        2021
The importance of ensuring
                                                                       High tariff     Medium tariff       Low tariff
fairness and consistency in the
approaches between schools has
                                                                                                           Source: WonkHE/UCAS
been a significant challenge this
year. Schools have taken a wide            underpredict disadvantaged high-
range of different approaches to                                                        Admissions
                                           achieving students in particular.39
assessing their pupils,34 and while        While maintaining there was no               Contextualising university admissions
some degree of flexibility has been        bias evident in the 2020 results,            has been a long term ask of the
necessary, there are questions around      Ofqual’s own literature review warned        Trust,41 and is particularly vital this
how to ensure that standards will          of the evidence for bias in teacher          year to ensure that poorer students
be consistent across the country           assessment.40                                who have faced more adverse impacts
with such variation in assessments.                                                     of the pandemic on their education
                                           Grade inflation is another threat to
The decision not to have externally                                                     do not miss out on a place at their
                                           the value of grades, both at A Level
set and externally marked in-class                                                      desired university. Such impacts
                                           and GCSE. After last year’s significant
tests will inevitably impact on the                                                     include the circumstances students
                                           inflation, it seems inevitable we will
consistency and integrity of this                                                       faced when learning at home during
                                           see something similar this summer. In
year’s grades.35 With teachers now                                                      lockdowns, as well as the style of
                                           fact, a return to pre-pandemic grade
having the final say, this places much                                                  assessments used to decide their
                                           distributions would be manifestly
more responsibility on them, and we                                                     grades – this report has found wide
                                           unfair to this cohort of students,
see the consequences of this in the                                                     variation in the number and type
                                           particularly if they are competing for
pressure some have come under from                                                      of assessments being used, which
                                           jobs or university places with last
parents. This is potentially unfair both                                                could impact on grades achieved. The
                                           year’s cohort. However, this stores up
on the teachers themselves as well                                                      uncertainties in this year’s grading
                                           problems for the future. Next year we
as students. This comes on top of                                                       system, combined with the challenges
                                           will face a similar dilemma: should
the additional workload of developing                                                   of learning at home and missing out
                                           there be a return to a ‘normal’ grade
and marking assessments this year                                                       on classroom support, should all be
                                           profile, or should accommodations
(without the extra pay that would                                                       considered by admissions staff when
                                           be made once again for students
usually accompany exam marking),                                                        making their final decisions this
                                           whose schooling has been disrupted.
along with schools expecting to                                                         summer. Universities should keep
                                           Grades should be fair both within and
receive a significant number of                                                         in mind that there were differential
                                           across cohorts (particularly adjacent
appeals to process this summer.36 As                                                    impacts this year both at a school
                                           year groups who are likely to be
pressures on teachers surrounding                                                       level (for example, only a certain
                                           competing in the future), and so there
education recovery continue over the                                                    amount of material was covered by
                                           are few good answers. Any return to
coming years, it is key that teachers                                                   a class teacher due to disruption,
                                           lower grades should be gradual, in
are given sufficient support.                                                           poor remote learning provision, or
                                           order to avoid any individual cohorts
It was also concerning to find that                                                     assessments were done in particular
                                           being punished unduly. It will be
a large proportion of teachers found                                                    ways), but also an individual level (for
                                           particularly important to ensure that
the support and guidance given to                                                       example, lack of access to the right
                                           any grading data is made publicly
them to determine grades this year37                                                    equipment for online learning, less
                                           available as soon as possible so
was insufficient, as there is a risk                                                    support in the home for learning, or
                                           that researchers and policymakers
that unintentional and unconscious                                                      an unsuitable working environment).
                                           have enough time to analyse before
biases may impact teachers' grading.       confirming the approach for next             Following this year’s abnormal
Research has shown that teacher            year and beyond; the delay in                assessment period, we are again
assessments can underestimate              publishing the 2020 data has made            approaching an unusual results day
the abilities of disadvantaged             assessments of the impact of last            which, as was the case last year,
students,38 and that predicted grades      year’s system harder to discern.             students are understandably
determined by teacher assessments                                                       concerned about. Recent data from

UCAS has shown that this year there        least, they should give particularly      has been negatively impacted by
is a fall in offer rates (particularly     careful consideration to Widening         the pandemic45 – last year, the Trust
amongst high tariff institutions) for      Participation offer holders.              found that working class university
the first time in 9 years, following       It is also more important than ever       students were more likely to be
a record high in 2020.42 Having a          that schools support their pupils         concerned about their mental health
higher than normal intake last year        this summer with navigating the           and wellbeing compared to their
has meant that many institutions are       admissions and clearing processes,        better off peers.46
nearing capacity (related to staffing      as well as with the appeals process       Before the university term begins, it
as well as campus space).                  for those who are unhappy with            will be key for universities to reach
Whilst the effect of this year’s grading   their grades, taking into account the     out to their new student cohort - after
on admissions is still unknown, the        changes to the process this year.         missing out on face-to-face visit
increase in applications, alongside        This is important for disadvantaged       days, universities should continue to
our polling showing a large proportion     students particularly, who are more       share online content with students
of students feeling confident that         likely to require support from their      to ensure they know what to expect
they will have done as or better than      school and less likely to be able to      when, most likely, arriving in a new
they expected, suggests there will         get help from home and elsewhere.         city. Moreover, when students can
once again be pressure on university       Furthermore, extra support will           gather on campus, universities
places. As individual-level learning       be vital for next year’s university       should do what they can to encourage
loss could not be considered in            applicants from both schools and          opportunities for students to interact
grading43 (and it remains to be            universities, and should be a key part    and socialise outside of learning time,
seen whether teachers have done            of any catch-up provisions, as they       to allow students to develop social,
this informally), students from            will have also missed out on support      team-working and other vital life
less well-off backgrounds could            in navigating their options during        skills. This is particularly important
be disadvantaged. If institutions          school closures. Many outreach            for students from disadvantaged
feel pressed for capacity, they may        programmes, including Sutton Trust        backgrounds who are more likely to
reduce the number of offers made           programmes, will also again have          be the first in their family to go to
by discretionary confirmation (when        taken place online this year, meaning     university and have fewer family or
students just missing out on their         that young people are missing out         friends who have been to university
original offer are given a place),         on getting to experience a taste          to share their experience. Previous
which are used by some institutions        of campus life in person before           research by the Sutton Trust found
to support students from a widening        applying.                                 participation in extra-curricular
participation background. They may                                                   activities fell considerably during
then make decisions based on extra                                                   the pandemic, and some of these
criteria, such as achieving a grade in     Starting university                       activities may need additional
a particular subject, making it even       Young people’s concerns about             support from universities to get up
harder to get a place.                     falling behind in class because           and running again.47 Although some
As a result, universities                  of the pandemic are important to          regulations, such as social distancing,
contextualising results where              keep in mind, even if students do         depend on decisions made by the
possible this year will again be vital,    achieve the grades required to get        government, giving more clarity on
to prevent disadvantaged students          into university. If certain topics have   the situations where universities have
narrowly losing out on university          been missed, there is a risk that         control will help to reduce the levels
places. Universities should ensure         students may arrive at university         of concern amongst students about
that admissions and clearing teams         without key foundations of subject        Covid-related restrictions.
are working closely with those in their    knowledge which could hold back           Some universities have already
institution’s widening participation       their progress and success in future      announced long term plans regarding
team, so that contextual data and          assessments, particularly those who       blended learning,48 following the
access and participation targets are       have experienced more disruption          changes that had to be made during
being taken into account in decision-      to their learning.44 And, if students     the pandemic. Whilst it is good to see
making. When deciding who to               start already feeling they are behind,    that some institutions are setting out
admit onto a course and comparing          it could make their transition harder,    clear plans so students know what to
students to each other, particularly       with potential impacts for their          expect in the future, the reception
when students have missed their offer      wider wellbeing and subsequent            has been mixed amongst students,
by only a grade or two, staff should       retention. Therefore, it is important     with many feeling they had not been
take the likelihood of learning loss       that universities offer support to        properly consulted on the matter.49 If
and experience of adverse effects          young people arriving this autumn         blended learning approaches are to
of the pandemic into account. A            and work with them to identify            become commonplace, universities
student’s GCSE results could also be       gaps in their knowledge that are          should take into account that learning
used as context, which could help          important for their degree. Wellbeing     away from campus will be difficult
to give a sense of a student’s ability     support will also be vital for students   for some, particularly for those with
before the impacts of the pandemic         settling into a new environment           inadequate access to the internet
on learning. If institutions are facing    during such a tumultuous time,            or a suitable study space (when in
capacity constraints over the number       particularly those from disadvantaged     rented accommodation or remaining
of places they can offer, at the very      backgrounds whose mental health           living at home). When any long-term

decisions are made regarding the          learnt from, this year’s solution is far   schools, universities and through
university experience, it is important    from perfect. Many students are still      national policy is required to ensure
that students are properly consulted      likely to be unhappy with their results    that disadvantaged young people do
and the voices of all students are        and, depending on the appeals              not carry the impacts of the pandemic
heard, to prevent changes that may        process and how universities handle        through to the next stage of their
negatively impact their learning          their application, may miss out on a       education, so that they can thrive at
experience.                               crucial next step in their education       university and beyond.
While some of the mistakes of last        which will have long term impact on
year’s grading system have been           their careers. Concerted action from


 For universities
 • Applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who have narrowly missed their offer grades should be given additional
 consideration in the admissions process. Universities should strongly consider that young people, particularly those
 from disadvantaged backgrounds, have faced additional challenges in their learning this year, which may not have
 been taken into account in their grades. It is more vital than ever to take such factors into account and recognise
 that grades may not reflect a young person’s full potential. Widening participation should be a key factor taken into
 account when universities are giving discretionary acceptances to those who have missed their offers.
 • Universities should provide additional wellbeing supports for the incoming cohort. This autumn’s university entrants
 have been through an acutely difficult period. They are likely to have additional need of support for their wellbeing
 and mental health as they transition to life in higher education. This could also include stronger support around
 developing friendships, connections and taking part in university social life. Strong communication is important to
 set expectations on the university environment and blended learning, particularly if some restrictions will continue.
 • Universities should identify key gaps in learning at an early stage in the first term, and provide support if necessary.
 Given the amount of schooling missed, there are likely to be knowledge and skills gaps among this year’s entry
 cohort. The importance of such gaps will differ by subject studied, but plans should be put in place to support
 students who may need to develop in key areas necessary to succeed in their course.

 For schools
 • It is more important than ever for schools to provide as much support to students as possible around results day
 and during the clearing period, which could be done remotely if necessary. Students who may be first in family
 to attend university, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may need particular support as they may lack the
 support from home and through networks to navigate what could be a complex and stressful period, compounded by
 the impact of the pandemic.

 For policymakers
 • Pupil premium and recovery premium funding, as well as National Tutoring Programme provision, should be
 extended to 16-19 year olds in education and training. Given the events of the pandemic, it is more important than
 ever that targeted support for disadvantaged learners should not end at 16.
 • Data on this year’s GCSE and A Level results should be made available to researchers at an early stage as possible,
 in order to understand patterns in this year’s results. Delays with the release of 2020 data have hampered our
 understanding of last year’s process, with knock on effects for this year.
 • There must be a long-term plan for assessment in 2022 and beyond. After two years of cancelled exams,
 lost learning, and substantial grade inflation, transitioning back to the ‘pre-pandemic’ status quo will be
 hugely challenging. Any return to pre-pandemic grade distributions should be done gradually, in order to avoid
 disadvantaging any one cohort unduly.

When looking at GCSEs specifically, the vast majority (96%) of teachers again said that assessments sat in exam
conditions were used to determine TAGs. As with A levels, assessments based on past papers were again the most
common form of assessment being used (76%). 65% used mock examinations, 35% used assessments written by
teachers, 19% used previous classroom work, and 11% used homework. 16% of teachers reported that their students
had prior access to the questions in their assessments, 12% said their students could see the mark schemes before
completing their assessments and 11% said the assessments were ‘open book’. Again, a small number of teachers
(3%) said the same papers were used multiple times to decide grades.
There were also notable differences in the types of assessments being used in private schools compared to state
schools. Whilst teachers in private schools were almost just as likely to say that students completed assessments in
exam conditions compared to state schools (98% compared to 96% respectively), they were more likely to report ‘open
book’ assessments being used (18% compared to 10% in state schools), prior access to assessment questions being
given (22% compared to 15% in state schools) and prior access to mark schemes being given (16% compared to 11%
in state schools).
Looking at state schools specifically, unlike with A levels, the types of assessment being used did not appear to vary
between the levels of affluence of schools.

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