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On mitigating disadvantage in the grade prediction process during the Coronavirus Pandemic

An open letter to Secretary of State for Education


Dear Rt Hon Gavin Williamson,

We hope this letter finds you and yours well amidst the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. The Equality Act Review is a campaign that is calling on the government to strengthen the equality act by adding protected characteristics that are not within the Act’s remit (such as homelessness and low socioeconomic background), suggest amendments to the legislation to ensure it reflects legal issues experienced, and increase education around the act for effective implementation. We aim to achieve this by conducting social research which informs policy.

Education equality falls within the remit of our work, as many protected characteristics intersect to exacerbate inequality. We are therefore writing to you in relation to the alternative arrangements that are being made for students’ final grades as a result of the cancellation of GCSEs, AS and A levels, due to the corona virus. On 20 March, the government announced final exam grades are now likely to be based on teacher assessments and prior attainment. This is a serious concern to us, as there is a rich body of literature that demonstrates that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to have their final grades under-predicted compared to students from more advantaged backgrounds (see Wyness: 2017), which often translates to lower earning amongst these groups. For instance, Heath and Li (2015) found that British Muslims earned £350 less per month compared to any other religious group. The widespread under-prediction of grades during the coronavirus pandemic could therefore, severely inflate the earning differentials between ethnic and religious minority groups for decades to come.

Photograph: Photofusion/UIG via Getty Images

In a recent report titled “Empowered Employment: Unlocking the Workplace for Muslim Women” (Bi:2020), which was the largest study of its kind in the world, it was demonstrated that Muslim women experience a significant loss of aspiration and talent between the ages of 14-22. For instance, of 425 women 79 wished to become doctors at the age of 14 however, only one of the 79 became a doctor at 22. This age span is inclusive of GCSEs, AS and A-Levels, which suggests that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are already at high risk of losing out on opportunities because of the multiple and intersecting factors that give rise to inequality. This includes the under-prediction of grades by teachers.

Our Founder and Chief Executive, Dr Suriyah Bi, experienced this first hand when her sixth form careers advisor told her that she would be rejected from all five UCAS options. She went on to achieve a place at Magdalen College, Oxford University. Furthermore, when she was invited to interview, she had asked her sixth form to provide her assistance in preparing for the Oxford interview, to which the sixth form teachers replied, “we are not paid enough to help you.” As a result, Dr Bi took voluntary leave from her sixth form studies for two weeks, during which she conducted self-study and preparation for her interview at Birmingham Central Library. Had Dr Bi’s grades and prospects been predicted by some of her teachers, she would not have had the opportunity to study at Oxford University, gone on to complete a PhD, and teach at SOAS, University of London. This is one of hundreds if not thousands of stories that capture the real lived experiences that you will seldom hear about. Sadly, they occur on a daily basis in the most disadvantaged areas. During the coronavirus crisis, such cases will only be heightened, and as a campaign, we are concerned that ethnic and religious minorities and/or pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will be further negatively impacted.

In inner-city Birmingham where the Trojan Horse Affair scandal took place, students have already been disadvantaged due to the racialisation and politicisation of Islam and Muslims. A recent study (Bi:2020) found that students at the schools involved in the Trojan Horse Affair scandal experienced increased anxiety and depression due to the potential discrimination that may be associated with the attending the schools alleged to have been involved. Such cohorts of students are already vulnerable, which is a further concern, as the issues surrounding grading may further inflate anxiety and depression amongst students from BAME and/or disadvantaged backgrounds further.

We know these are testing times for all, and know that the Department for Education, Schools and Ofqual are working hard to create a fair predicted grading system. However, this does not negate the concern we hold that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and/or ethnic and religious minorities, are more likely to have their final grades under-predicted compared to higher attaining students from more advantaged backgrounds. We therefore make the following recommendations:

  1. Provide teachers with information and training on conscious and unconscious bias prior to issuing grades, in order to mitigate the discrepancies.

  2. Raise awareness about mitigating circumstances applications amongst students and teachers.

  3. Consider increasing grades for students from BAME/disadvantaged backgrounds to be applied to final predicted grades.

  4. Encourage Universities and Sixth Forms to lower their grade boundaries for BAME/disadvantaged students.

The grades achieved at this stage of a young person’s life are crucial in forming experiences of educational, employment and social outcomes more broadly, in years to come. We hope that the above recommendations can be considered by the Department, Schools, Ofqual, Sixth Forms and Universities to ensure that equality of opportunity is granted to all, despite these difficult circumstances.

Yours sincerely,

Equality Act Review Campaign

Selected References and Resources

Bi, S. 2020a. Empowered Employment: Unlocking the Workplace for Muslim women. Muslim Women Connect.

Bi, S. 2020b. Double-Edged Panopticons: Increased Anxiety, and Deflated Islamic Identities: A child-centred perspective of the Trojan Horse Affair. Journal of Muslim Minority Studies, Issue 40:2.

Heath, A. & Li, Y. 2015. Review of the relationship between religion and poverty - an analysis for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. CSI Working Paper.

Wyness, G. 2017. Rules of the Game: Disadvantaged students and the university admissions process. The Sutton Trust.

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