Due to COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson have announced that GCSE and A-level exams will not be taking place in England this summer. For year thirteen students whose conditional university offers are based on their A-level results, this poses serious problems. Students are to receive grades based on their teachers’ assessment of their work including predicted grades, mock exams and coursework with exam boards providing external checking.
This method of deciding A-level results will be particularly harmful to black students whose grades are routinely under-predicted. A 2016 study by University College London’s Institute of Education found that 84% of predicted A-level results were wrong, meaning only one in six university applicants will obtain the grades they are predicted. This astonishing inaccuracy is by no means equally distributed across racial groups. In 2011 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found black students received the lowest predicted grade accuracy, with only 39.1% of predicted grades being accurate, while white students had the highest, at 53%. Black students not only have their grades inaccurately predicted but under-predicted, as they are more likely to surpass predicted grades in exams.
Why the disproportionate underprediction of grades for black students? It’s no secret that anti-black unconscious bias permeates English classrooms, with the education thinktank LKMco finding that non-black teachers tend to have lower expectations of black students and are more likely to negatively judge and severely discipline pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds. Alongside this, in 2018, 90.5% of all teachers in English state schools were white.
Black Caribbean pupils are some of the worst affected by institutionalised racism in schools. They are three times more likely to be excluded from school than their white peers. In 2020, The Independent reported that “schools are unfairly punishing black students for their hairstyles, wearing bandanas and kissing teeth” due to lack of cultural awareness and anti-black perceptions held by teachers. With an education system permeated with anti-blackness, poor predicted grades appear only one disadvantage faced by black students in England.
Many minority students took to Twitter to raise their concerns and share their personal experiences of underpredicted grades. Ajibola Ayorinde, now twenty-seven, remembers how teachers underestimated his ability while studying for A-levels, stating “I was predicted down internally to BBC based on January exams, but by then [I] had already got the offer I really wanted. I came out with A*AA.” A petition on Change.org, which now has over 140,000 signatures, demands the government to “allow teachers to give honest predicted grades for their students” yet Black Girls Bookclub, founded by Natalie Carter and Melissa Cummings-Quarry, tweeted that “every Black child in my year group exceeded predicted grades by at least two-thirds scales. Please don’t sign this petition. It doesn’t account for teacher bias.”
Ofqual and the exam boards monitoring schools’ results have stated they are taking steps to ensure that “grade distributions resemble previous years”, but with the inherent bias in education so pronounced, this statement does little to reassure, especially as the Association of School and College Leaders has instructed teachers to not give students ‘the benefit of the doubt’ when predicting grades and that leniency would be ‘wrong.’ A further announcement that the government are going to cap university admissions amidst COVID-19 disruption only reduces the prospect of university for black students.
For black A-level students, these are uncertain and challenging times. Until the government properly addresses the anti-black bias found in classrooms throughout England, this staggering inequality is likely to remain.