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What they know

Zahir Irani argues that universities need to be more involved in school assessments

Michelle Donelan has announced this week that universities will be required to improve outcomes for disadvantaged young people by driving up standards in local schools and colleges. They will also need to set new ambitious targets to reduce dropout rates and improve progression into “high paid high skilled jobs”.

I would argue that universities also have more of a role to play in school assessments to support a more integrated transition to university.

Disruption to school exams and questions over the value of grades have all kinds of implications for higher education. Such disruption passes onto the sector the challenge of pupils’ ‘lost’ learning and future success. And this, in turn, has an impact on social mobility, skills, and a UK economy that is already struggling to cope with the misalignment between skills capacity and capability.

It’s further and higher education that ultimately take the responsibility—and sometimes the ‘blame’—for the nature and capabilities of those entering the employment market. Higher education therefore needs to be playing a greater role in the school assessment system, and in shifting the emphasis from what students learn to what they know.

A-levels have been in a state of flux for years, with the recent norm of a modular structure and coursework replaced by a refocus onto exams—a retrograde step, in the opinion of many assessment experts, benefitting a particular learning style and presenting a barrier to inclusion. Then, with the arrival of Covid-19, came Centre Assessed Grades, followed by this year’s Teacher Assessed Grades, which were a response to the general backlash against an algorithm that looked to find a ‘normal-ish’ grade distribution.

Grade inflation is now an accepted term (with ‘grade deflation’ all set to come next year), but it is derogatory and insulting language for students and for a teaching profession that has done its best through extraordinary times. It also suggests students will enter higher education very much on the back foot and that some are undeserving of their place.

If there is more Covid-19 induced disruption, or even no exams again in 2022—a scenario modelled by the Department for Education/Ofqual—then higher education could be looking at applications from a year of students who have never sat a formal, national exam.

Creating confidence

Universities expect to offer interventions to support new and returning students, to help enable everyone to realise their full potential. But to make sure they can continue to support social mobility and help with transitions, there must be confidence in exam results, not only across further and higher education, but among employers.

Constant changes to the nature of A-levels and their results have made planning for admissions difficult, creating a need for multiple budgetary scenarios (depending on how the main admissions cycle, confirmation and clearing go).

Higher grades have caused some university admissions offices to reduce the number of undergraduate admissions and encourage deferrals on courses with limited capacity for placements or with restricted physical resources. This has led to some radical offers, such as the University of Exeter’s offer of £10,000 plus free campus accommodation for medical students willing to defer for a year.

A great deal of work has also been passed on to higher education in terms of support for levelling-up and the transition to higher study, involving university planning and resources, new schemes, activities and calls on staff time.

Universities are responsible for ensuring all students have the same foundation of subject knowledge, which is very much not a given anymore. They need to give students the confidence and tools they need for catch-up learning or the ability simply to refresh their skills. They need to support students via an extended induction over more than the usual week or two, to meet their peers, socialise and adjust to the particular social norms of university student life following a solitary lockdown period.

Localised assessments

The risk is that where there is a loss of confidence in the quality of grades, universities resort to introducing localised forms of assessment, which would undermine A-levels still further and have the biggest impact on non-traditional students.

These kinds of tests often disadvantage students from a non-selective educational background who are unused to the principles involved and the specific type of test experience. Unlike their peers from more affluent backgrounds, they cannot afford support for preparation, coaching and online assessment tools; unfamiliar kinds of testing act as another barrier to people who may already lack confidence in their abilities and potential, providing a further reason to opt for an easier (or what they see as a more ‘suitable’) route into work.

In September, the Independent Assessment Commission published its interim report on transforming the assessment of young people. Academics, schools, the National Union of Students and Confederation of British Industry argued that the current assessment system is “not fit for the future”. The report also pointed to the impact on student and teacher mental health from what have become “cliff-edge exams”. It should leave us all wondering how much potential has been left uncultivated over the years.

Taking a lead

Higher education needs to take a lead on planning a more holistic approach to assessment that is not underpinned by cramming and memory skills. For this, it should make use of its wider links to employers and understanding of the changing picture of skills needs, as well as its broader community role and relationships across government.

Assessments need to be broader, recognising a range of what students know, can articulate and do. The central role and visibility for universities in a new, more sophisticated 21st century nationwide assessment system would add kudos and reassurance for parents and students, and leave no one behind.

It would also make sure that assessment involves both what students have learned and what they ‘know’—their skills and competencies.

Most importantly, the sector should lead on designing an assessment system that encourages social equality because it’s the students from disadvantaged backgrounds who find new assessments daunting, who tend to undervalue their abilities, and need the most help to thrive. We need to keep in mind the benefits of fair, reliable and supportive systems, and the value of channels open to everybody in meeting the urgent needs for motivated and ambitious young people with the right skills in a post-Covid-19 world.

Zahir Irani is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford and chair of the Bradford Council Economic Recovery Board