University admissions and exams reform, two sides of the same coin?

The following is a transcript of a presentation that I gave at the recent Westminster Higher Education Forum on the possible impact of exams reform on admissions and implications for widening participation.


Good morning

I suspect that Michael Gove might actually be quite pleased with the ‘O level’ referencing in this cartoon. However I like its understatedness reminding us of the possible human dimensions to education refoms and in particular major exam reforms coming to a head this summer. Anyway, I’m the Managing Director of Altain Education and we are a strategic agency helping people from exams and assessment organisations with their customer and commercial stuff.  We do work with universities but again, typically ‘schoolside’

Our aim today is to explore with you, the possible impact of exams reforms, in relation to admissions and particularly in relation to widening participation.

Our approach is to:

  • Firstly, to explore the connection between exams and admissions
  • Second, the nature and possible significance of the reforms
  • Then, what might be done, in the short term
  • Finally, to wrap up with thoughts on the longer term

In the education committee’s review of the exams system, the most common complaint was of an exams dog wagging the education tail. The question here is whether exams reforms are perhaps unwittingly wagging the Social mobility tail too?

So – what about the connection between exams and admissions?

Exams and admissions; Two sides of the same coin?

There is perhaps no better illustration of the close connection between exams and admissions that the annual results day ritual.  In effect, ‘Two sides of the same coin. This then, extends to the chain of decisions and activities leading up to the results. Then beyond as we move into clearing and exam appeals.

Underlying this appears to be a narrative ‘blueprint’ for education success and arguably success in life – Work hard, get your qualifications, go to university, get a job!  A narrative with significant motive power, but possibly under pressure – a theme we will return to in a moment.

In principle, this is an equitable situation as the means of getting onto the pathway, ie largely via public exams, are open to all.

There are possible question-marks over equality of opportunities for attainment and progress.  Perhaps also a question mark over open accessibility of all university offers.

However these problems will be endemic in the system ‘as is’. Our interest here is the possibility that the reforms bring something new.

Exams reform: An equitable ‘fiasco’

These are major reforms and admissions and history tell us that the initial results period can be particularly challenging.

Some have suggested curriculum 2000 as a comparison, for example, which we’ve reflected in this two by two box so beloved of us consultants. AS changes were centre stage in 2000 as they are this time and then culminated in a reported grading ‘fiasco’, with young people missing out on university places and high level resignations.

Roll forward to the forthcoming exams and we might hope that lessons had been learned. However, if we take the example of AS and Maths in particular,  we should note that leading universities were against the changes, as their evidence was that availability of AS enabled some young people to discover Maths ability not apparent at GCSE. Perhaps more significant is the totality of changes –

  • AS decoupling, disadvantaging students that ‘discovered’ maths capability later in the education cycle
  • GCSE Maths, toughened up with a change from alpha to numeric with 9 an new top grade above the existing A* for example and a ‘good pass’ a grade 5 which equates to the top of a grade C and above
  • A levels have been tightened up
  • A return of Entrance exams/interviews for some universities

Individual assessments may be the same for all but for some there is a potential for a ‘compounding’ factor.

In addition to this, is the challenging scenario reportedly faced by some schools on funding and teacher recruitment, leading to a shortage of specialist teachers eg physics and maths, a narrowing of A level curricula, possibility of reduction of supporting resources such as textbooks.

Perhaps under-reported, is the possible knock-on impact of ‘bandwidth’ issues at KS 4/5 on KS3 student progression – labelled the ‘wasted years’ by Ofsted.

In summary, if you are projecting some distortion in relation to students from disadvantaged backgrounds that would seem reasonable.

So, what might be done?

What might be done?

Others have commented on possibilities for the admissions system and ‘outreach plans’

Specifically, on school side intervention, we observe three main strategies –

  • Going around the schools and directly targeting the student eg social media events
  • Adaption of admissions policies to mitigate uncertainty eg unconditional offers
  • Direct engagement with the schools eg Supporting attainment with tuition; or working with schools to judge ‘potential’ where exams results may not be representative

The ‘Sweet spot’ with most interventions most likely to be around ‘Attainment’

Schoolside, ‘What works?’

If you are minded to do more school- side, particularly in the area of attainment, it might be helpful to be aware of the ‘what works’ movement emphasising ‘evidence based’ policy and practice. This ranges from guidance on research based strategies, to driving attainment, through formative assessment, to assessment systems that might be helpful for local evaluation and experimenting with interventions.

So, more assessment, but very different in purpose and approach from high stakes exams.

With two options – leverage it, or be part of growing it.

Wrap up

Finally, to wrap up I wanted to return to the theme of there being an underlying narrative as a motive force (and one possibly on the wane) that drives young people toward university. In effect, a value proposition and value chain and quite a bit more. As this cartoon reminds us, this is a time in which this ‘value’ might be under question.

One of the possible side effects of the reforms is that bandwidth issues mean that we lose sight of the need to sustain the narrative and more particularly the need to refresh and perhaps re-architect offers and the system

In April, a new motive force will be unleashed, a £3 bn apprenticeship levy.

It would be shame if young people from disadvantaged background missed out on a lifechanging university experience instead because exam reform meant eyes were taken off the ball.

Thank you


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