A-level results U-turn comes too late for Britain's BAME students

A-level results U-turn comes too late for Britain's BAME students
5 min read
19 Aug, 2020
Comment: The government's dire handling of A-level exam results will hit already disadvantaged students the hardest, writes Aniqah Choudhri.
The UK government was forced to do a U-turn on its A-level results algorithm [Getty]
The books have always been stacked against Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students in Britain, but this summer brought one of the worst setbacks we've witnessed in recent history when it comes to race and social mobility. 

This past week has been a turbulent time for prospective university students due to a series of government led catastrophes over A-level results and university admissions.

All A-level and GCSE exams were cancelled this year due to the pandemic which already put the fate of students outside their control and into the hands of their teachers and their predicted grades.

This was already a flawed process. Teacher predicted grades 
have come under criticism before for routinely under-predicting when it comes to ethnic minorities. It is a flawed system that already stigmatises BAME students, but the government's process for assigning student grades this year made it even worse.

In England, the official exam regulator Ofqual asked teachers to submit a predicted grade for each student and a ranking compared to their peers. This information was then fed through an algorithm to decide the grades - supposedly a more accurate process than simply the teachers' predictions.

BAME students in Britain already face more obstacles than their white counterparts when it comes to university admissions

A similar process was used for students taking exams in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The result, was thousands of students all over the country losing out on university places due to being marked down for an exam they never sat. 

The faulty algorithm was widely and furiously criticised, leading to a U-turn from the government four days later. Nearly 40 percent of A-level grades were lower than the teacher predictions, and worse, the change affected those in state schools more than private schools. Private schools have smaller class sizes, better funding, and pupils generally come from a background where they have more time, money and space to focus on after school activities, so the performance of the schools overall has been better.

By basing the algorithm on the school's past performance, many students were downgraded through no fault of their own. 

Thanks to hundreds of students protesting in Westminster, the government has now reversed this method of assigning grades, however for many the damage has already been done. Many students will not get their first choice of university according to the vice-chancellors of universities since those places will have already gone to the students who were accepted with the results from the algorithm.

Read more: UK coronavirus response forces most vulnerable to shoulder the burden

This has also thrown university admissions offices across the country into chaos as they try and sort thousands of desperate students in clearing, with hardly any notice before the new term starts.

So why does this affect BAME students in particular? Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students in Britain already face more obstacles than their white counterparts when it comes to university admissions and employment after graduation.

This year's Covid-19 pandemic has only 
worsened this already unfair situation. BAME communities are more at risk of catching the virus and the anxiety young people will have been feeling in the run up to university admissions has made an already stressful time much worse. Now that there is a scramble for the remaining university places, many disadvantaged students will lose out on the chance they had for their chosen place of study. 

Some students may choose to defer a year, but many from poorer backgrounds cannot afford to wait a year, and so it will either be the university they get into in these few weeks, or nothing. Children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnicity are most likely to be living in low income households in the UK.

The government's exam results fiasco will be a huge step back for social mobility within BAME communities 

The same statistics show that black children are also more likely to be living in low income households compared to their white counterparts. Many of them will now have to choose between whatever university they can get, in this chaotic atmosphere, or be thrown into a struggling job market where over one million more people are expected to lose their job this year due to the pandemic. Some of them will have been counting on a student loan, and many will have families who cannot afford to keep them at home for another 12 months.

The government's exam results fiasco will be a huge step back for social mobility within BAME communities in Britain, despite the government's U-turn. The first university places went to the students who did well by the algorithm - mostly private school students. Now many of the students who have now been awarded their teacher predicted grades have lost out on their first choice. They will either defer or take what they can get. 

Some critics like the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, have put this chaos down to incompetence from the government, however it's worth noting the system was rigged even before this scandal hit.

We do, after all, have a prime minister who has a 
history of anti-black, Islamophobic and racist speech. In the past, Mr Johnson has spoken clearly about the need for envy and greed, to boost the economy. Speaking to a room of his peers during the Margaret Thatcher lecture of 2013, he made his thinking crystal clear: "Inequality," he said, "is essential."

Aniqah is a freelance journalist based in Manchester. Her work has appeared in The Independent, gal-dem and Exeunt Magazine. She also writes fiction and poetry and has been published in several anthologies.

Follow her on Twitter: @aniqahc 

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.