Sarah Akintunde admits to being “scared”. The 18-year-old from Romford in Essex hopes to study law at Oxford university from September but needs Thursday’s A-level results to deliver top grades to do so.

If that prospect was already daunting, the disruption of coronavirus and the scrapping of exams this year, in favour of a series of statistical assessments, means that the future for the 700,000 A-level students due to get their results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this week is even more uncertain than normal. “Even if you think you have done well”, says Ms Akintunde, “it doesn’t mean you have”.

The stakes are particularly high for students from ethnic minorities, like Ms Akintunde, those from low-income backgrounds and from other groups traditionally under-represented in higher education — including white working class boys, Roma and mature students.

The barriers that students from these backgrounds face remain formidable. Data from the Office for Students, the university regulator, show that those admitted to Oxford and Cambridge are around 15 times less likely to come from the UK’s poorest districts than its richest ones. Across more than 25 of the more prestigious universities from Birmingham to York, young people from the richest areas of the country are on average four times more likely to attend than those from the poorest.

And while a far higher share of the population now attends university than two decades ago, giving more access to many from under-represented backgrounds, more privileged students still dominate.

Chart shows share of entrants by level of deprivation* (%) showing ‘Oxbridge’ universities admit few from disadvantaged backgrounds

Even before coronavirus — and despite more than £550m being spent annually on boosting access — progress had been slow. The share of students from the least wealthy fifth of British districts attending higher education has risen from 11.6 per cent to 12 per cent in the past five years; and for black students from 5.8 per cent to 6.6 per cent. Universities such as Oxford had announced bold plans this year to expand their intake of students from low-income backgrounds.

Now, there is concern that coronavirus threatens to reverse even the small progress that has been made. The fear, among teachers and specialists is that less privileged school leavers will receive lower grades given that the marking algorithms deployed to substitute for written exams are based partly on a school’s past record rather than the individual’s potential.

That was illustrated by the furore surrounding results in Scotland last week, which led to a U-turn on grading. The UK government subsequently unveiled new options for A-level students to appeal against their grades, based on mock exam results, hours before they were due to be released.

Longer-term there is also a risk that younger students from poorer backgrounds who seek to attend university in the future will struggle to catch up after an extensive period out of school due to the national lockdown.

“It’s likely that the disadvantaged will get the rough end of any unfairness,” says James Handscombe, headmaster of Harris Westminster, Ms Akintunde’s sixth-form academy school in London. “When times get tough it’s those on the margins who feel it worst.”

Sarah Akintunde, who is waiting for her A level results, hopes to go to Oxford
Sarah Akintunde, who is waiting for her A-level results, hopes to go to Oxford © Anna Gordon/FT

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, says that there has been improved access to higher education over the last two decades. “[But] we have been less successful in improving access for the hardest to reach, to universities with the highest entrance requirements.

“The gaps”, he adds, “are still very large”.

Access denied

For those working to improve access, there is a clear case for accelerated action. David Lammy, minister of higher education in the UK’s last Labour government in 2009-10, says: “If you look around the world, serious democracies are increasingly seeing higher education as the fundamental place to effect equality of opportunity.

“If you can bend the pendulum at that stage”, adds the MP for Tottenham, in north London, “you can make a real difference. It has such a profound effect on the job market, careers, your progress through society. Our approach in the UK has been incremental at best.”

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has committed his government to “levelling up education” to help “every child reach their full potential”, although critics argue its redistribution of school funding has so far done little to help those most left behind. 

Chart shows estimated access and participation investment 2020-21 (£m) showing UK universities have committed to spending vast sums on access programmes

As a minister, Mr Lammy helped draw attention to the failure of the most prestigious universities to provide better access to poorer students, forcing them to reveal data on the heavily disproportionate share of places allotted to students from fee-paying schools, who make up just 7 per cent of the total school population in the UK.

“The statistics were staggering,” he says. The rich London boroughs of Richmond and Barnet “were sending way more students to Oxbridge than the entirety of Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham [total population 2.5m] combined.”

Oxford is among the worst performers. It estimates that about 13 per cent of its annual intake of 3,300 students comes from low-income backgrounds — a proportion it has pledged to almost double within three years.

Andi Marsh: ‘Just showing them that there are students like me . . .  makes it so much more accessible’
Andi Marsh: ‘Just showing them that there are students like me . . .  makes it so much more accessible’ © Anna Gordon/FT

Samina Khan, the university’s director of undergraduate admissions and outreach, points to a range of initiatives to achieve that goal. These include Uniq, a programme for those from state schools and under-represented groups, which aims to demystify Oxford by inviting promising students to a week-long summer school to experience college life and talk to existing students who act as ambassadors to provide support and mentoring. Target Oxford is a similar scheme for those of British African and Caribbean origin.

Lady Margaret Hall, the Oxford college, has launched a foundation year course to prepare promising students for the admissions process. It is now being expanded across the university.

Andi Marsh, an Oxford classics student who studied at a state school in Lewisham, south London, says: “Many [under-represented] students have spent their entire life believing they are not good enough for [Oxford]. Just showing them that there are students like me, a black woman, as well as the white public school male, you can imagine makes it so much more accessible.”

Those admitted to Oxford and Cambridge are around 15 times less likely to come from the UK’s poorest districts than its richest ones
Those admitted to Oxford and Cambridge are around 15 times less likely to come from the UK’s poorest districts than its richest ones © James Brittain/View Pictures/UIG/Getty

‘A lot of tinkering’

Finance is one of the most fundamental hurdles — both for entering and completing university. Some universities, including Bath and Liverpool, have expanded the number of scholarships offered each year to students from low-income households.

An analysis published by the Office for Students in January showed that universities spend collectively more than £550m a year on access programmes — everything from financial aid, which accounts for 60 per cent of the money, to outreach schemes.

Yet progress has been slow and piecemeal. A study produced by the Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, concluded that most interventions had only a modest positive effect and the evidence on improved enrolment remained scant. “There’s still a lot of tinkering and a lot of rhetoric,” says Mr Lammy. “You have to ask, ‘Where has the money gone and what has it succeeded in doing?’” 

‘Our approach in the UK has been incremental at best,’ says David Lammy
‘Our approach in the UK has been incremental at best,’ says David Lammy © PA

Universities say they are working with one arm tied behind their back because they are blocked from accessing more detailed data on individual applicants which could be used to hone their selection processes.

The main benchmarks that they can use to assess a student’s background include Participation Of Local Area (Polar) data, a system that gives an overall indication of poverty and deprivation by individual postcodes; and aggregated data from schools such as those with a high proportion of students on free school meals.

But these are blunt instruments. Small, densely populated urban areas such as North Kensington in London include both wealthy families like that of David Cameron, the former prime minister, and extremely poor ones. State schools with a high proportion of students from low-income backgrounds also teach those from wealthier ones, especially in areas with fewer alternative schools.

It makes identifying specific students who most need the additional help more difficult, say education experts.

Oxford estimates about 13 per cent of its annual intake of 3,300 students comes from low-income backgrounds
Oxford estimates about 13 per cent of its annual intake of 3,300 students comes from low-income backgrounds © Christopher Furlong/Getty

“The majority of disadvantaged students don’t live in disadvantaged areas or go to disadvantaged schools,” says Stephen Gorard, professor of education at Durham University who believes universities should have access to the data he can view as an academic. His analysis uses official data available on individual students, which tracks notably those on free school meals and those with special educational needs.

“There is considerable evidence that those young people — who’ve had challenges and had to struggle at home — have potential for growth and learning at university that is often much greater than their prior qualifications would suggest,” he says. “It makes sense in terms of justice, ethics and in practical terms to give them preference. They are heavily under-represented and the ones with the greatest potential.”

An educational Catch 22

Government officials argue this information must be kept confidential to respect individual privacy. In its absence, admissions officers must rely on cruder proxies like Polar and declarations provided by students themselves, who may be reluctant to flag up their background, or on teachers who may not always be aware of individual circumstances.

Ms Khan says that individualised data would allow universities to make more targeted offers. That would permit them to better interpret predicted exam grades, given research suggesting teachers often underestimate grades for students from less privileged backgrounds.

She argues that A-level results themselves should be “contextualised”, with final student grades adjusted for factors in their background which could have an impact on their academic performance. Others suggest the existing system of making conditional offers based on predicted examination grades discriminates against those under-represented groups and should be changed to one in which universities make offers only when final grades are known.

Chris Millward is the director for fair access and participation in the Office for Students
Chris Millward is the director for fair access and participation in the Office for Students

More broadly, Mr Millward argues for more “wraparound” support including mentoring and careers advice at university, while others like Rachel Carr, head of IntoUniversity, which works with schools in poorer areas, stress the importance of greater funding, tuition and support for children as soon as they enter primary school.

There are worries that these weaknesses in the existing prediction and grading system will be exaggerated by the impact of Covid-19. In the short term, in the absence of exams, a combination of teacher predictions and estimates based on past performance of schools will be used to award A-level grades. In the longer term, the loss of learning caused by the disruption and closure of school classrooms since March is set to be felt more acutely by students from less privileged backgrounds, given they have had typically less access to online resources and other forms of teaching support.

“The setback is huge,” says Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, a charity which runs programmes to help improve access to university for more than 2,000 school pupils each year. “Social mobility has fallen through the floor. This is the short-changed generation. With distance learning, many don’t have the right kit, don’t get into the right programmes, don’t have room to work and their parents that can’t help them even though they want to. The complications of working from home are astronomic.”

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon looks on as John Swinney, the education secretary, announces that 75,000 pupils will have their qualifications upgraded after public outcry over the original results Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon looks on as John Swinney, the education secretary, announces that 75,000 pupils will have their qualifications upgraded after public outcry over the original results

Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, argues that the statistical models used this year to award grades based on past trends risk discriminating against bright students in schools with average overall performance, or schools with rapidly improving results caused by factors such as a recent increase in teaching quality.

He points out that there will be mitigating factors: some “grade inflation” with more generous marking overall is likely this year, and a greater willingness by universities to be more lenient in their entrance requirements. They are seeking to maintain their intake — and fees — against a backdrop of a UK demographic decline in the number of 18-year-olds and the risks that coronavirus will reduce demand from international students.

Philip Nye, a researcher at the Education Datalab, a policy consultancy, dismisses some of the short-term concerns about discrimination in grades as “overblown”. He adds that it will be impossible to draw any definitive conclusions for many months, until groups like his have gained access to just the sort of individualised data universities are still unable to access around income, ethnicity and special educational needs.

Daniel Moynihan is chief executive of the Harris Federation, a network of academy schools — state-funded but autonomously managed that teaches many students from low-income backgrounds. Across its 48 schools it has 61 pupils, including Ms Akintunde, with offers at Oxford and Cambridge conditional on their A-level grades. “For many of our students . . . getting [these places] will be life changing. They don’t have the contacts and networks, so it will open a whole new world for them.

“It will really make a difference if they get in,” he adds, “[and] if they don’t.”

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