A significant minority of teachers have been approached or pressured by parents about their child’s grades, with those at more affluent schools more likely to have been contacted.

This is according to new research from the Sutton Trust (@suttontrust) that surveys both university applicants and teachers to give a picture of how this year’s exams are being affected by the pandemic. The report raises concerns that lower-income students could lose out further this year after two substantially disrupted years of education.

According to polling of 3,221 teachers by Teacher Tapp, 23 per cent of teachers at private schools and 17 per cent at state schools in affluent areas say that parents had approached or pressured them over their child’s exam grades this year. The same was true of just 11 per cent of teachers at state schools in poorer areas.

Following the cancellation of exams for the second year running, the Department for Education announced that students taking GCSEs, A levels or BTECs this year would have their grades awarded by their teachers. According to government guidance, teachers can look at a combination of coursework and ‘mini exams’ to decide what grades their pupils should be awarded.

However, today’s research identifies a big variation in the number of assessments being taken by A-level students to determine their grades. Almost two fifths (38 per cent) of teachers said their pupils were doing three to four mini assessments per subject. However 18 per cent said their pupils were sitting more than six and a similar proportion reported their pupils were sitting two or fewer. There is also variety in the type of assessments being used, with some schools giving access to questions in advance, or allowing ‘open book’ tests, while others conduct the tests under exam conditions.

The decision to revert to teacher-assessed grades in 2020 meant that more disadvantaged students gained places at selective universities than ever before. While the A-level attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their classmates remained steady on average, the gap at the highest grades (A and over) widened slightly by 2 percentage points.

With application rates soaring for 2021, the most selective universities have reduced their offer rate by 6 percentage points from last year in the face of expected grade inflation. Many students who are applying to university are understandably worried about how the pandemic is affecting their next steps.

Almost half (47 per cent) of the 463 applicants surveyed by YouthSight thought that the pandemic disruption will negatively impact their chance of getting into their first-choice university. This was especially pronounced for those applying to Russell Group institutions (56 per cent). However, some anxieties have eased since the Spring, when 62 per cent were worried about getting into their desired course.

A majority of applicants (53 per cent) are worried about being ready to start university this autumn, and a third (34 per cent) feel unprepared to start university. Those from a state school are more than twice as likely to feel unprepared for starting university compared to their independent school peers (36 per cent vs 17 per cent).  

Today’s research brief highlights some of the challenges facing young people, schools and universities in this year’s admissions cycle. In today’s report, the Trust makes a series of recommendations:

  • Schools should provide as much support to students as possible around results day and during the clearing period. Students who may be first in their family to attend university, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds may need particular support from their school.
  • Universities should give additional consideration to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who have narrowly missed their offer grades in light of the disruption to their learning.
  • From next year, pupil premium funding, targeted at disadvantaged pupils, should be extended to students in post-16 education, and they should also receive increased ‘catch up’ funding to match those in secondary schools.
  • The Trust recommends moving to a system of post qualification applications where students apply to university with their grades in hand.  This should prevent low-income students from being disadvantaged and make the system fairer for everyone.

Sector Reaction

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“This year’s cohort of university applicants have faced almost two years of disrupted education. As we approach results day, it’s vital that poorer students are not disadvantaged by the greater impact of the pandemic on them. 

“Universities should give additional consideration to disadvantaged students who have just missed out on their offer grades.

“The government’s consultation on university admissions is a positive step forward.  The Trust recommends moving to a system of post qualification applications where students apply to university with their grades in hand.  This should prevent low-income students from being disadvantaged and make the system fairer for everyone.”

Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, responding to Sutton Trust research on parents in advantaged areas pressuring teachers to increase grades and concern among students at missing out on their first choice universities, said:

“The Conservatives created havoc with last year's results and this research shows they have failed to learn from their mistakes and get a system in place which carries public confidence and is fair to all pupils.

“Come results day every pupil must be supported to progress with their education, training or employment, not just the most privileged.

“The Conservatives have treated children and young people as an afterthought throughout this pandemic. Ministers must now urgently set out the support that will be available to pupils, parents and teachers on results day to ensure no young person loses out on future opportunities due to their failed pandemic response.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Without doubt, it has been an extremely difficult year for students and school staff. This has been exacerbated by late decisions by government on the alternative arrangements for awarding grades and the detailed guidance not therefore being published until the end of March. School and college staff then had little more than half a term to implement those processes.

“That said, students and their families have every reason to be confident in this year’s results, even though there have been no exams. The grades are based on the evidence – this is students’ work, which has been assessed and moderated by the people who know them best – their teachers. There are no algorithms this year, just human effort and human expert judgement. And this year’s grades were subject to quality assurance by the exam boards after teachers had submitted them.

“Parents should recognise the rigour of this year’s awarding processes and understand that it is inappropriate to put pressure on staff regarding their child's results.”

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