Two in five disadvantaged pupils believe they will receive unfair grades – poll

Nearly two in five disadvantaged students are not confident they will receive fair grades that reflect their ability, under the teacher assessment system this summer, a report suggests.

A survey by the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) charity suggests 52% of high-achieving poorer pupils do not believe they will be able to successfully appeal against any grades that they believe to be wrong this year.

More than a third (36%) of young people questioned are not confident they will receive the grades they need for their chosen career path, or to secure a university place this autumn, the poll found.

The findings come after teachers across England have finalised decisions on their pupils’ GCSE and A-level grades after this summer’s exams were cancelled for the second year in a row.

Teachers are able to draw on a range of evidence when determining pupils’ grades this summer, including mock exams, coursework, and in-class assessments using questions by exam boards.

But the poll, which included more than 1,300 high-achieving disadvantaged sixth formers across the UK, found 38% are not confident they personally will receive fair grades reflective of their ability.

The charity is calling for all UK governments to ensure all Year 13 pupils can repeat a year if deemed appropriate by their schools, and those opting to take exams in the autumn – rather than accepting their teacher-assessed grades – can do so free of charge.

It adds that ministers in England and Wales should review the grounds available to appeal to account for specific challenges disadvantaged pupils have faced.

The charity, which aims to make practical improvements in social mobility for young people from low-income backgrounds, questioned 1,578 students taking part in the SMF programmes.

All the students questioned – from Year 12 up to university undergraduates – are high academic performers and the majority have been eligible for free school meals (FSMs), the charity said.

The survey also found the majority (58%) of students felt that not all parts of the country had suffered equally because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than a third (35%) did not have access to reliable broadband during lockdown, it suggests.

Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the SMF, said: “This is a real test for the Government’s commitment to levelling up.

“The pandemic has not affected this country equally and has hit young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the hardest.

“While the process for assessment this year has sought to address inequalities, young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are at a distinct disadvantage.

“They have missed out on more school time and are less likely to have access to reliable internet, a laptop and a quiet place to study and yet the appeals process does not account for this at all.”

Alan Milburn, chairman of the SMF, said: “We cannot afford to get this wrong again. Disadvantaged young people have already disproportionality suffered during the pandemic.

“Levelling up cannot happen without a level playing field. If the Government is truly committed to prioritising the most disadvantaged, they must have an appeal process that recognises that the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on those from poorer backgrounds.”

Dr Michelle Meadows, deputy chief regulator at Ofqual, said: “The resulting teacher-assessed grades are the fairest way to award results in the circumstances and to reflect differences in content covered by students.

“Teachers are best placed to make those professional judgments and decide from a range of choices available what is the most suitable evidence to use when grading their pupils, from exam questions to coursework.

“Although the picture is mixed, there is independent evidence that lost learning during the pandemic has affected disadvantaged students.

“Measures have been adopted to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on grades for summer 2021 assessments.

“Our analysis of summer 2020’s grades found no evidence of systematic bias against students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and this is further mitigated against this year through guidance for teachers, informed by a literature review, on how to avoid bias.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Teachers know their students best, so we enabled them to choose the evidence they use to assess students – ranging from coursework, classwork and mock questions – and only covering topics which have been taught.

“There will also be a range of internal and external quality assurance checks, and an appeals process where students think there has been an error. Students also have the opportunity to sit exams in autumn and Year 13s will be able to repeat part or all of the year if they feel they have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.”