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PQA Is Groundhog Day

University sign

One might have thought that the Department for Education had enough to do this year, what with the aftermath of last summer’s public examination grading, school Covid closures, masks, lateral-flow testing, free school meals controversies and a new scheme for this summer’s public examination grades to develop. Gavin Williamson and his intrepid civil servants, however, have a greater capacity for initiating and implementing change than most headteachers.

In January the Department for Education launched a consultation on changing the university application system. The consultation closed last week. It is fervently to be hoped that the government response and the likely changes do not appear until the autumn, allowing a somewhat jaded teaching profession to focus fully on GCSE and A-Level grades over the next few months.

The current university application system relies on teachers making accurate predictions of pupils’ A-Level results. The predictions are made in the September of the Upper Sixth Year. The predicted grades match pupils to courses. They both guide the pupils towards applying for appropriate university courses and encourage universities to make offers to pupils who are likely to achieve the necessary A-Level grades to join the courses. The extended ‘match-making’ period is valued by universities who feel that they can really get to know the pupils and allows the pupils to be sure that they have chosen their university wisely. Pupils usually apply for five university courses and then accept two offers, all before receiving their A-Level grades.

The problem is that accurate predictions are hard to make. Students mature through the A-level course and in many skills-based subjects such as English or History this can make a considerable difference to the outcome. Some students are capable of making super-human efforts in revision and produce examination performances which are well above the level that would reasonably be expected from their work during lessons; equally a few students misread questions or allocate their time to different questions in an unbalanced fashion and frustratingly underperform in the examination.

Any Headteacher will also tell you that examination boards are not always accurate in their marking with some bewildering anomalies uncovered and challenged, each year. Mock examinations appear a good way of estimating grades. However, if the teachers use actual past-papers then both the papers and the mark schemes are widely available on the internet and can therefore be accessed in advance of the examination by the ambitious or merely curious student, inflating their scores. If the teachers use papers constructed for the purpose, no examination board mark schemes are available and no published grade boundaries exist to indicate the likely grade. Predicting A* grades is particularly difficult with a wide variation in the percentage of these grades awarded in different subjects and, in some of the humanities, pedestrian and prescriptive mark schemes which reward the meticulous rather than the brilliant.

The result is that some pupils are under-predicted. They then gain high A-Level grades, leaving them wishing that they had aimed higher with their university applications. Currently, a process called ‘Adjustment’ allows these pupils to gain a place at a university requiring the higher grades that they now possess but this system is an uncomfortable work around rather than a systematic solution. PQA or Post-qualification Application would allow pupils to apply to university after their A-Level results are known.

The Department for Education has put forward two models:

Model 1 (Post-Qualification Application) would involve A-level and equivalent exam results being released in July, with university courses starting in the first week of October. This would allow for a three-month post-qualifications application and admissions period in which offers could be made and accepted. This model would require a change to the exams timetable, with exams and marking being compressed into a shorter time period. A-Level examinations would have to take place in April with a corresponding reduction in syllabus content and pupils and teachers would have to be available from July to make applications.

Model 2 (Post-Qualification Offers) would involve maintaining the existing process of making applications during the Upper Sixth year. However, offers and decision making would not take place until after A-Level results day. This model would require less change to the exams timetable and the issuing of results. It would mean that all applications would be on hold until the exam results are announced when a frenzy of activity would begin. Again, university courses would not start until at least October.

Various bodies have published their views with predictable results. The Examination Boards are opposed to any change, fearing that they cannot mark the A-Level examinations quickly enough. Universities and teachers are also generally opposed to any change, the former because they like to get to know their applicants and not delay the start of their courses and the latter because they enjoy a well-deserved summer holiday. If change is essential then both constituencies would favour Model 2. Given the entrenched opposition Gavin Williamson will need to muster all his courage and political capital if he is to make such a systemic change.

This is now the third major consultation on this idea during my professional life. I suspect that the outcome of this consultation will be the same as the last two. Groundhog Day.