I like Labour shadow education secretary Angela Rayner. As an ex-special adviser to Damian Hinds, I probably shouldn’t. But I do. She cares about the right things. Like getting more kids on free school meals into university. We know that these children often do better than their predicted grades and could get into a better course than they actually do.
And so today, on her watch, the Labour Party has announced that it supports an end to university applications using predicted grades.
However, caring about the right things is not the same as having the right solutions – especially when there is a wrong solution that seems so attractive.
And getting rid of predicted grades does seem attractive. At the Department for Education, I could almost set my watch by how often the idea would come my way. Here’s the case for it: we know that poorer children (like all children) often do better than their predicted grades. This means that – on the basis of the predictions – they understretch when making their university applications. As a result, they miss out on opportunities to get on to the very best courses. Surely the answer is for them to apply after they get their results, rather than on the basis of less-than-perfect teacher assessments.
First of all, at least two cheers to the Labour Party for recognising the imperfection of teacher assessments. Despite best intentions, biases slip in, disadvantaging the most disadvantaged. A properly invigilated test is indeed more reliable and fair. The right-hand of the party policy machine may, however, want to point this out to the left-hand, which is working to replace end-of-primary-school testing with – yep – teacher assessment.
Getting rid of predicted grades
So, if post-A-level application is more reliable and fair, how can anyone possibly oppose it?
For a start, it has some pretty significant downsides. The key question is this: when will the application process take place? We know it’s got to happen after A levels. So you either have to bring A levels earlier or carry out applications partly during the summer holidays. Bringing A levels earlier means less time for learning. That means not only a less educated population but also a bigger attainment gap. And richer children will fill in the gaps at home.
As a result, we would end up doing applications – and, in some cases, interviews – during the summer holidays. That means more work for teachers during the time they should be taking holiday. The one thing the education system does not need is for teachers to be working harder. It also assumes that universities are going to play ball, reviewing applications and organising interviews during the holidays. I am not convinced. I am also not convinced students (or parents) will welcome replacing the holiday of a lifetime with a series of tough decisions and interviews.
This is before we get to the real problem.
A policy fundamentally fails if it makes the problem it is trying to solve worse rather than better. The aim of this policy is to help the poorest students make better decisions about the universities they apply to. The actual consequence of the policy will be the opposite. Why? Because students will have to make their decisions during the summer holidays. In order to support the poorest children, we will force them to make these critical decisions when they have the least support.
It’s easy in politics to rubbish someone else’s idea while providing no alternative. Easy, but wrong. So here’s a simple alternative: if we want to stop poorer children undershooting in their university options, all we have to do is add a new, mandatory box to the Ucas form. Let’s call it the “stretch box”. It works like this: when filling in their applications, every child must fill in the “stretch box” with a course that they could only access if they overshoot their predicted grades.
Problem solved. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest.
Jon Yates was an adviser to Damian Hinds, the former education secretary