“This is Tranquillity Base. The eagle has landed."

“This is Tranquillity Base. The eagle has landed."
Date17th Aug 2023AuthorNick AllenCategoriesPolicy and News

I have always found media coverage in the build-up to A level exam results utterly infuriating. It almost always seeks to diminish the achievements of our students, and when bored of that approach it seeks to undermine faith in the fairness of exams themselves, which, in turn, diminishes the achievements of students. The media have still found their targets this year (more on that below), but the big story this year is grade deflation. I have to say I prefer the phrase ‘powered descent’ to describe what has happened, which I have shamelessly stolen from an audio recording of the exchanges in the control room guiding the Apollo 11 moon landing: after all, deflation sounds a bit, well, deflating. What we are seeing is the result of a deliberate policy decision to manoeuvre a carefully constructed system to a particular point at a particular time. Time will tell how successfully this has been achieved.

This powered descent puts us in a somewhat curious situation: we need to celebrate results in a year where those results are significantly lower than at any point this decade. Managing the narratives around these results is crucial. We somehow need to convince students that their B grades are genuinely just as good as their slightly older peers’ A grades from 2022. We need to manage reactions in subject departments as well, and convince colleagues that their 21% A*-A rate is just as impressive as the 41% achieved last year. 

What do we know about grade inflation which will help us understand grade deflation?

If we are to understand grade deflation properly, there are three things we need to know about grade inflation. Firstly, the level of grade inflation in 2020-22 was not as dramatic as people think. At its peak (2021), around two-thirds of grades were higher than 2019: the typical student benefited to the tune of two grades across an A level programme, the equivalent of getting BBB rather than BCC. Secondly, the level of grade inflation varied across different subjects, with teacher assessed grades producing dramatic increases in grades in some subjects, and more modest increases elsewhere. Thirdly, the level of deflation achieved last year varied from subject to subject. In Maths, Chemistry and Sociology, grades were much closer to historic standards than they were in performance subjects.  The experience of grade deflation then will vary from subject to subject: some subjects will have harder landings than others. This variation also makes it difficult for us to judge how strong performance in individual subjects is. We have been told to look at our 2019 grades as a starting point. I would suggest an average of 2017-19 would provide a better platform for analysis. Anyone serious about results analysis needs to wait for a full value-added model benchmarked against sector performance in 2023 of course.

So where has the Eagle landed?

As promised, the JCQ data release reveals a return to 2019 standards or thereabouts. Things have been a little more generous at the top end, with the proportion of A* grades 1 percentage point above 2019, and the A*-B rate up by 1.6% percentage points. The A*-D rate, though, is 0.9 points lower than the 2019 standard. Unlike 2022 where the level of inflation above 2019 standards varied significantly from subject to subject, things look much more controlled this time. For example, only Physics sees A* grades more than 2 percentage points above 2019 standards. This does mean the hardness of the landing is painful in some subjects. Music will see its A* grades drop from 17.3% in 2022 to 6.4% in 2023. Drama will see its A*-A rate drop from 38.3% in 2022 to 20.8% in 2023. We will need to be very careful in our management of quality assurance processes.

The national narratives

Last week the Guardian led with the headline “Lower-income pupils expected to be hit hardest by grade deflation”. This is misleading, and possibly entirely untrue. It is not grade deflation that would cause these students to perform disproportionately badly compared to others, it is the consequences of the pandemic that were most keenly felt by this group that (if anything) will drive relative underperformance. It does a disservice to this group to suggest it is grading levels that is the issue, and it stops us from coming up with appropriate responses.

A further argument that was popular was that those from disadvantaged backgrounds would miss out in the university application process, as their inflated GCSE grades would have misled them about the sorts of universities they should apply for. Perhaps we ought to remember that the grade inflation was disproportionately found in the independent sector. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffered less from the inflation, so presumably be less impacted by unrealistic expectations. It is a tricky one to conclude on here, as the biggest barrier to getting a place at a top university is not applying in the first place. 

I suppose the problem here is that what all this represents is speculation. While we will all do our best for our students on results day and beyond, what we really need is carefully considered analysis of the features of performance this year. If disadvantaged students really did underperform, we need to understand the extent of this and plan for how we will seek to address this with the students with us in September. The new year 12 will have been in year 8 when the pandemic hit, so their secondary schooling will have seen significant COVID disruption. It is an entirely reasonable assumption that COIVD interrupted the learning of these students most.

What will be interesting is to see whether the relative performance of different institution types has changed, and whether, within sixth form colleges, students from disadvantaged backgrounds have seen relative declines in performance. It is therefore also an entirely reasonable assumption that COIVD interrupted the learning of disadvantaged students among them most. 

All this leaves us with plenty to do. As the dust settles on this exam series, we need to consider what targets to set our incoming students, who will be arriving with normal grades for the first time since 2019. We need to consider how we mark work, and test the assumptions we make about what marks equate to particular grades. The Eagle may have landed, but we have some way to go before we are in a place to soar once more.

Nick Allen is vice principal at Peter Symonds College and leads the Six Dimensions project, an in-depth yearly analysis of academic and progression data for the sector as a whole and for individual SFCA members.

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