Avoiding a double whammy for care-experienced A-Level students

Janet Boddy
Thursday, August 13, 2020

A-Level results have been announced in England today, and Ofqual figures show that almost 280,000 students (39 per cent of the cohort) have had their grades adjusted down after moderation.

For many, this need not disrupt their plans for higher education. UCAS reports that 80,000 young people may apply to university through clearing this year, and many universities are likely to be flexible in their response to moderated grades – recognising the unique situation of the 2020 cohort, and also concerned about the drop in their projected student numbers because of the impact of the pandemic on the recruitment of international students.

However – as was the case in Scotland when the results of higher exams were announced last week – the process of grade moderation has disproportionately impacted young people from less privileged backgrounds. News outlets have cited Ofqual data showing that ‘pupils at independent schools received double the improvement in A* and A grades compared with those attending state comprehensives’. Some young people are likely to be doubly disadvantaged in dealing with the consequences of this unprecedented situation – with grades adjusted down, but without the support they need to navigate through the clearing system.

A substantial international literature has reported that people who have been in care are less likely to go to university than their peers (see Harrison 2019 for a discussion).  In common with other studies, our research at the University of Sussex (Hanrahan, Boddy and Owen 2019) has shown that delays and disruptions in educational pathways are often associated with low expectations or lack of support at critical times. One young woman in our study, who at the time of our research had a Masters degree, had to pursue an access course to go to university because nobody at her college told her she needed specific grades to enter university. She said, “I finished that course (in 6th form), but no one had told me about these bloody UCAS points.”

Many universities make what are known as ‘contextualised’ offers in clearing – this means they can take account of a student’s particular circumstances even if they have not achieved the advertised grades. Most also offer additional support for care-experienced students when they are at university – with dedicated grants, year-round accommodation, and ‘welcome packs’ including pots and pans, bedding and other essentials.

The charity Become has a dedicated website, Propel, with information for care-experienced people who are thinking of university. As an example, you can read about the University of Sussex offer for care leavers here.

My advice is for young people in care to call the clearing hotline for the universities they are interested in, or register online and they will call back. The clearing team can also put a young person in touch with the team who provide support for care experienced students. Young people should also be able to talk to students (sometimes even on the same course) and many universities are offering online ‘campus tours’, to help potential students get a sense of the place.           

Across the country, worried parents are helping their children to navigate clearing, making sure the Ofqual grade adjustments don’t shatter their dreams. For young people who have been in care, virtual heads, teachers, social workers, and foster carers all have a critical role to play in supporting them through this unique situation.

Janet Boddy is professor of child, youth and family studies, Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth at the University of Sussex

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