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Disrupted grades and knowledge gaps await in 2021

Image: Richard Townshend, [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Emma Hardy highlights the challenges facing higher education and government in the 2021 university intake

Since the full return in September, schools all over the country have been beleaguered by classes and year groups self-isolating and by staff absences leading to rotas and partial closures. At one point in my own city of Hull, 35 per cent of pupils were at home.

To compound this, the government has failed to live up to its promises on laptop provision, and its decision to reduce the financial support available to schools has left many unable to prevent increasing gaps in children’s learning. Infection rates have varied widely across the country at different times, meaning some pupils have suffered far more disruption to their education than others.

The education that A-level students have received will have been incredibly varied. This year’s candidates have already been required to catch up on learning that they missed during the first lockdown and are now facing periods of self-isolation, with whole bubbles away from school.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is pushing ahead with exams next year with no clear idea of how much disruption still lies ahead for students and despite the logistical challenges of fitting all the exams into a smaller time window.

Last week, nearly a million pupils were out of school because of the coronavirus. Significant disruption to pupils’ learning, and the announcement that schools will be given notice of “some” of the exam topics, means pupils will not cover the full curriculum as they would in a typical year. Williamson has also stated that next year’s exams will see “more generous grading”.

Approach to grading

This presents two significant challenges for higher education providers. The first is how they should approach next year’s grades. How, for example, can they assume equivalence of ability between two students with the same grade when they have no way of knowing the degree of disruption each has experienced?

This lack of certainty, and the evidence that pupils in the most disadvantaged areas have faced the greatest disruption to their learning, spotlights the issue of widening access.

The University of Birmingham and the University of Surrey have announced their intention to lower entry requirements. Doing this allows them increased flexibility but does not answer the question of how they will arrive at a final judgement between applicants when making their offers. More than ever, applicants will require transparency and reassurance over the admissions processes to ensure they can receive the best careers advice possible and make the choices that are right for them.

Course adjustments

The second question is how universities are going to address the gaps in knowledge and skills facing the intake of 2021. Universities should already be engaged in finding ways to address this. Courses are designed assuming a core foundation of knowledge and skills, and first-year students cannot be expected to catch up as they go along if they lack key fundamentals. Adjustments to courses will almost certainly be needed and would provide reassurance to the students who have suffered from the highest levels of Covid disruption.

The Department for Education is finally establishing an advisory group to look at “differential learning experiences” due to Covid. It must look closely at the challenges facing those entering higher education next year.

Finally, a thought for the class of 2020. The jobs market they entered was severely depressed. Some, such as those hoping to enter the performing arts, live events and allied work, have seen their entire intended destination mothballed. I repeatedly put pressure on the government to provide targeted support. Yet it failed to act and, as the crisis rolled on, the question of graduates’ fates faded into the background. However, those graduates are still very much around and remain sadly neglected.

Meeting these challenges means there will be much to do in 2021. For now, I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and the chance to find time for relaxation and recuperation—you have certainly earned it.

Emma Hardy is shadow universities minister.