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Rene Kinzett

Lowering Expectations

January 15th, 2011 by René Kinzett

The news that the Government is seriously considering shaking up the higher education admissions system by changing to a post-result application procedure has got to be very welcome news to people like me who have long wanted to see this brought about.

The Government is consulting on whether to change the A Levels timetable so as to allow those applying to higher education to do so AFTER they receive their final A Level results. The current system sees students relying on their “predicted” grades to help them to chose the type of institution they apply to and even what course they choose to study. A post-result application system will allow students to make choices based on what they actually get in their final exams and coursework assessments.

This may seem like a dull mechanistic change to many, but apart from the obvious benefit of giving students a more powerful position as consumers, shopping around for a university course with their grades already banked, there is also the issue of social mobility to consider. Groups such as the Sutton Trust have long argued that students from poorer backgrounds, studying in schools or sixth form/FE colleges with little expertise in university entrance requirements, tend to have their predicted grades deflated some way below what they often actually receive. Compare this to independent schools where A Level predicted grades are more accurate; where whole lessons are put aside for university application processes; and tutors expert in getting kids into the best institutions can use a student’s predicted grades to match them to the best possible options in terms of courses and colleges.

I remember when I was doing my A Levels, I had a pretty standard set of predicted grades, plenty good enough for most universities offering the courses I was interested in, but not so good as to make any application to a Russell Group university look realistic. I thus opted to make applications to institutions where my predicted grades would secure me a place on the course I wanted to study. I also made a wild card application to one Russell Group institution, more out of protest at what I saw as a predicted grade score lower than I thought I would get. However, once the provisional offers came rolling in I got cold feet and opted for a “safe” choice of an offer at the grades I was predicted and an insurance choice;  I rejected the offer from the “better” institution on the basis that the grades wanted were somewhat above my predicted results and I felt that it would be a wasted option on my application form. As it was, my results were good enough to have secured a place at the Russell Group institution and whilst I telephoned the Admissions Tutor in the department concerned to plead my case, it was of no use due to the course being over capacity.

Whilst I don’t regret having studied at the university I got into, I do wonder how many other people were in my situation. This issue has been around for a long while and I remember working on it back in 1999/2000 when I was employed by the old Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) now Universities UK, where I was looking at issues relating to widening participation in higher education. I also recall certain groups of higher education staff being against the changes, presumably because it would mean more work for them to do in the summer term after students get their A Level results.

A lot of what this Government is looking at in terms of widening participation and encouraging students from lower-income backgrounds to go to the best universities in the country is very much longer-term work, involving almost a cultural shift in how we view universities and the education system generally. However, by doing this one small thing, by changing the A Levels exams timetable and bringing in a post-result application system for higher education, the Government could achieve quite a lot without a huge amount of effort or turmoil.

  1. OxfordSpring OxfordSpring says:

    It certainly is a change that has the potential to benefit many people and it should be carefully considered as part of this government’s broader review of higher education in this country.
    There are however two problems which I wonder if you could address.
    On a purely practical level, I do not see how a post-A-level application system would work. Exams and coursework results are released usually in the later half of August, leaving just over a month for students to view, apply, be interviewed by universities. Not to mention that this is in the middle of the summer, meaning that students (and HE staff!) will lose any chance of a holiday. How is that possible? The current timetable organised by UCAS leaves almost 6 months for the same procedure.

    My second question is slightly more serious. It is immensely difficult to study for examinations without a target grade which you need to achieve and without them many students will find that they actually do worse than when they had a fixed-goal to aim for. From my own experience at school, those students who did not have university places with fixed grades to aim for found exams a great deal more stressful and tended, on the whole, to do less well because they had no bench-mark to aim for. I fear that changing the application system in the way proposed may lead to lower results across the board.

  2. René Kinzett René Kinzett says:

    Yes, the timetable needs carefully consideration. As for “targets” and grades to “aim for” I am less convinced.

  3. bnzss bnzss says:

    As it happens, I was in an identical situation. The offer from the Russel Group uni was higher than my predicted grades, but I plumped for it anyway and worked hard at it and, luckily I suppose, managed to secure a place.

    Of course, incentive is everything. I question whether or not I’d have achieved 3 A grades if I weren’t set that goal. Being, y’know, 18 and all that.

    I am ultimately unsure how big a deal it is when you can choose a backup choice from the other 5 applications (that’s how it was when I applied anyway!). Anecdotally, it only really become a problem for people with the gumption to apply for Oxbridge and/or medical courses, where options become more limited and deadlines much earlier.

  4. René Kinzett René Kinzett says:

    But research from Sutton Trust and others show that kids from what Tony Blair called the “bog standard” Comps get lower grade predictions and therefore limit themselves in terms of choices at too early a stage.

    • bnzss bnzss says:

      Aye, then I suppose the real problem is the veracity of the predicted grades themselves, and who exactly chooses them. I’ve always wondered why AS-level grades were not used by admissions tutors as the barometer for subsequenet A2 grades (solely, I mean, rather than in conjunction with predicted grades).

      I should point out that this is based on 6 year-old information, so I could, potentially, be talking nonsense…

  5. Great post making some strong points.

    The biggest obstacle in any relatively large scale of reform (such as this) tends to lie in the inability of the educational establishment itself to accept change.

    The mentality of ‘it worked for me so why should we change’ is rife amongst the populace. We only need watch the audiences reaction to Gove’s logic on this weeks Question Time to see evidence of it.

    There is absolutely no reason why the academic year for A-level students cannot start earlier in the summer. It will be unpopular, but six weeks off at the age of 17 is, quite frankly, a waste of useful time.

    A previous comment was right in saying that predicted grades are important for direction and performance improvement. Shrinking the gap between finishing school and starting college would enable the same amount of contact hours, the same level of examination and would bring the exams/release date forward potentially to May. This would leave the entire summer for open day visits, career advice and UCAS applications.

    • René Kinzett René Kinzett says:

      Thanks for the comments, indeed the proposals I saw (admittedly about 10yrs ago or more) were for fewer hols for schools, bringing assessments forward and starting school year earlier. All of which were also seen as good things for lower-income groups where parents can struggle with work/childcare balance during the silly long summer hols. You are right, people need to think differently to how things have always been done before.

  6. Nick Nick says:

    Just a random thought, but might an easier way to achieve this be changing when the University year starts? Maybe switching the start to January could allow for a post-result application procedure as well as providing a useful gap for new students?

  7. René Kinzett René Kinzett says:

    Hi Nick, good to see you commenting here and for your mention of my pro-AV post the other day over on your blog! I think changing the uni calendar wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but others have raised issues about being out of sync with other nations.

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