The north-south divide could be exacerbated by the controversial changes to A-level grading, regional leaders and MPs have warned, after it emerged pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds had been disproportionately hit by grade reductions.
Students from poorer areas were more likely to have seen their predicted results lowered by regulator Ofqual compared to their wealthier counterparts, figures showed on Thursday.
Because the north has a high proportion of such deprived patches, there are now fears this year’s gradings will ultimately widen the already-growing gulf with England’s southeast.
“We are concerned that the Ofqual algorithm may well have entrenched regional disparities,” said Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.
The controversy comes after exams across the UK were cancelled this summer because of coronavirus and an algorithm was designed to calculate this year’s results based on predicted grades, previous work and the historical performance of schools and colleges.
The result has been that pupils from previously underperforming institutions – often in poorer areas – were more likely to see results downgraded from what teachers believed they were likely to achieve.
Mr Murison said: “We are working to close the educational divide between north and south. The gap in attainment being widened without final examinations being set strikes us as evidence of potential issues with the operation of the algorithm used by Ofqual, which will potentially give grounds for schools in the north to make an additional challenge to current results in the appeals process.”
The comments followed those of Hull West and Hessle MP Emma Hardy – Labour’s shadow education minister – who said: “The government has created A-level results chaos, that particularly threatens the social mobility and aspiration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
And, reacting to data which showed private schools had seen a rise in good grades, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “Tell me how this isn’t discrimination based on class.”
In an interview on LBC, meanwhile, education secretary Gavin Williamson’s former politics teacher at Scarborough Sixth Form College, on the northeast coast, said algorithms made the system a “lottery”. Peter Ashton told the station: “It tends to disadvantage high-achieving pupils in low-performing schools.
“So for example, if a school got 5 per cent grade As last year and the teachers are recommending 10 per cent grade As, they’ll change the results to fit this model and the grades will be lowered. Students will suffer as a result of that.”
Asked whether the assessment was accurate, Mr Williamson said his old lecturer was “always correct” – but went on to defend the system.
“What we’ve asked the exam boards is, where they think there may be outliers, is actually to be contacting the schools to talk with them to make sure that appeals are put forward,” he said.
Ofqual itself spent much of Thursday defending the system.
The body said the differences between the change in predicted and final results was “relatively similar” across all socio-economic groups, adding it was “difficult to draw firm conclusions” over the relationship between deprivation and grade adjustment.
Some 85 per cent of students categorised as having a “low” socio-economic status by Ofqual had been predicted to achieve a C and above by their schools. This fell to 74.6 per cent once final grades were calculated under the algorithm – a drop of 10.4 percentage points.
The proportion of students from the least deprived backgrounds awarded a C and above fell by 8.3 percentage points during the process, from 89.3 per cent to 81 per cent.
Boris Johnson said the exam results were ”robust” and “dependable”.