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Results day: 'Eradicating the A-level gap between rich and poor will take a generation. Are politicians up for it?'

There are several stories in today’s A-level results, but the main one remains the widening achievement gap, writes one heads’ leader

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There are several stories in today’s A-level results, but the main one remains the widening achievement gap, writes one heads’ leader

Congratulations to A-level and AS-level students on their results today. It is an anxious time, waiting to see if plans will come to fruition or hastily making new ones. As ever, teachers and staff in schools will be standing behind their students, ready to guide and advise. Their dedication to their students in the face of such turmoil can never get enough credit.

More than almost any other exam, A levels are a pivot point. They demonstrate the weight we place on exams – despite widespread recognition that no assessment system or marking process can withstand that much weight with the accuracy required. As HMC notes, the gap between grades – and therefore opportunities – can turn on a small number of raw marks in a subjective marking scheme. Of course, a bad result need not be the end of the world, and of course other achievements are recognised – but there's no denying the pressure. 

There are thousands of individual stories today, but what is the national story?

There are three, I think:

The decline in languages

Story one: the decline in the number of students taking language A levels. This is properly worrying because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: fewer A-level language students mean fewer language teachers, which mean fewer language students...

EBacc hits creative subjects

Story two: the decline in creative subjects at A and AS level, including a big drop in music. Are these signs that a focus on English Baccalaureate subjects at GSCE is creating a bottleneck for study of non-Ebacc subjects at A level? I have been an advocate of a strong academic core at GCSE but it is hard to ignore the fact that music is a rigorous and demanding subject which does not register on the EBacc measure. The argument to focus on Progress 8 rather than EBacc seems strengthened by this initial data. 

The achievement gap

Story three: this story is not in today's data but is in the background to the discussions about it. This story is, still – after all the investment and attention and pain – the gap in achievement between the rich and poor. This regulates access to university and to particular career paths

Historically, according the Brilliant Club, just 16 per cent of children on free school meals go to university (compared with 36 per cent from state schools generally). The proportions are even worse for highly selective universities. A major cause of this is not achieving high enough results at A level. 

Does this even matter? University is not right for everyone; there are many examples of successful and happy people who have not had a university education; there are other forms of training and development.

I think it does matter. Not that everyone should go to university or should want to go, but that everyone with the aptitude should have the opportunity to go. And you can't go without the entry requirements. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not seem to be getting the results they need to give them the maximum range of options. I am more than happy if a student with good A levels chooses, with their eyes wide open, not to go to university. I am less happy if they didn't have that choice in the first place.

How should we solve this? More outreach and access? Further turmoil and reform to A level studies and exams?

These solutions come from looking through the wrong end of the telescope. If we're worried about equity in A-level results, it is too late to make enough of a difference in the sixth form itself. We have to eradicate the achievement gap right at the start of schooling. The solutions to equity in higher education are, at least partially, to be found in nurseries and early years settings.

Sorry, politicians, but I have the worst possible news for you: this is an 18-year reform project. Still interested?

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union. He tweets as @RussellHobby

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