Alumni, staff and students have called on the University to #HonourTheOfferDaniel Gayne

Demands for the University to honour state school students’ offers have surged amid controversy over A-level results. 

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have been most severely affected by the ‘standardisation’ process used to determine A-Level grades this year, while students from private schools have benefited the most from the controversial system, according to analysis of A-level results. 

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, year 13 students did not write their A level exams this year and instead their grades were awarded by an algorithm which analysed pupils’ mock exam results, predicted grades and rankings by teachers. These grades were then moderated by exam boards, by looking at schools’ past performance and students’ previous exam results. 

Attainment in state comprehensives is likely to be more variable compared to independent schools and as such, the grading system has been accused of unfairly punishing high performing state school students because the model uses schools' past performance to modulate teachers' predicted grades.

Professor Priyamvada Gopal, a Fellow of English at Churchill College, has called upon the University “as a matter of principle” to “honour all existing offers to state sector candidates regardless of their result,” particularly given the University’s slow track record on “widening participation.”

Gopal, in a tweet, called for alumni to write to their colleges and ask them to honour their offers to all state school candidates. 

In response to Gopal's tweets, a University spokesperson affirmed Cambridge's commitment to widening participation and highlighted that while being as "flexible" as they can in the admissions process, the University must work within government restrictions on student numbers and physical constraints. 

Yet, the demand for the University to #HonourTheOffer has continued to attract widespread support on twitter, with hundreds tweeting in support of the University giving state school offer holders their place even if they missed their grade requirements. 

#HonourTheOffer is not only a demand in Cambridge but across Universities in the UK. With Worcester College, a constituent college of Oxford, confirming today (14/08) it will give places to all their UK offer-holders irrespective of their A-level results, saying 2020 is their “most diverse cohort ever.”

One supporter of #HonourTheOffer is former CUSU president, Evie Bethan - in a tweet she stated that this is time for the University to “put your money where your mouth is” in terms of their commitment to widening participation. 

An open letter calling on the University and its constituent colleges to "seriously reconsider cases" where students with contextual flags on their application have had their offer withdrawn has already been signed by over 170 individuals and societies, including the SU Class Act Campaign, The 93% Club Cambridge and a number of JCRs and JCR officers.

Another open letter from alumni is also asking for the University to honour all offers made to state school students. The open letter, which has over 50 signatures at the time of publication, writes: "The University can, and should, do better than the government. Now is the moment to act on your plan – to demonstrate that the University is capable of seeing the inequality in the current crisis, and acting in the interests of parity and justice."

When questioned by Varsity about the impact of this year’s results on access efforts in Cambridge, a University spokesperson responded: “The University is committed to widening participation, and to achieving an intake that is reflective of UK society and providing equality of educational opportunity for all those who study at Cambridge” 

The University, recognising that this is a “highly unusual year with significant disruption”, details it will review “each case in detail and offer as much flexibility” as possible. 

The University’s page for offer holders also details that there will be a limited number of places available through UCAS Adjustment, whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds who were originally rejected are given offers if they exceed the conditions of their conditional-firm offer. Although, only students who have already been notified that they are eligible for the scheme will be considered in the adjustment process.

However, SU Access, Education and Participation Officer, Esme Cavendish, rejects the University’s claim to flexibility, highlighting to Varsity her concern “that the students who have been unjustifiably downgraded so as to miss their offers by a large margin are not being fairly considered.” 

She demanded that “the University should be proactively redressing this injustice by extending flexibility not just to near-misses but to those who have been obviously victims of nonsensical downgrading.” 

Cavendish has also called for “a consistent policy across colleges to adjust their admissions accordingly in acknowledgement of the inequalities which have been exacerbated by this grading system, with state comprehensive and Widening Participation offer holders being accepted on the basis of their predicted grades.” 

According to analysis by Ofqual, the examination regulator, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were most likely to have the grades proposed by their teacher downgraded. Moreover, students from disadvantaged backgrounds had the largest difference between their final grades and those predicted by their teachers. 

While 8.3% of students from the least deprived backgrounds had their teacher predicted grades downgraded, 10.4% of students from the most deprived backgrounds had their grades downgraded after adjustment. 

There was also a wide attainment gap between independent schools and state comprehensives in terms of top grades. The year-on-year rise in the proportion of private school students receiving an A or A* was 4.7%, compared to the proportion of A and A* grades awarded to pupils from state comprehensives which only rose by 2% from 2019. 

State sixth form colleges fared even worse than comprehensives with top grades only rising by 0.6 percentage points. 

The algorithm used to determine grades has been described as ‘inevitably’ disadvantaging high achieving students from schools with poor past performance. 

Part of the bias against students from more deprived backgrounds is the result of the algorithm being less applicable to schools with smaller cohorts and more esoteric subjects, which is more likely in private schools. As such, private schools are less subject to the vagaries of the algorithm and pupils from independent schools were more likely to be awarded their teacher assessment grades. 

SU Class Act President, Amy Bottomley, emphasised the "arbitrary" nature of the grades students received on Thursday (13/08) and that these grades "should pale in comparison to the overwhelming evidence that led to offers being given in January."  

She continued with the appeal that "Cambridge is no place for the postcode lottery to win out." 

The detrimental effect of the grading process is particularly evident amongst Cambridge offer holders from schools in disadvantaged areas with few Oxbridge offer holders. 

One such example is Mithushan Thiagarajah, who had an offer to study medicine at Gonville and Caius. He would be the first in his school to attend Oxbridge and while predicted 4 A*s, he only received an A* and 3 A’s, missing his Cambridge offer. 

Cambridge SU's Class Act Campaign highlighted in a press release that offer holders "are left with only one option: to appeal their grades." However, Class Act stresses that the appeals process is costly and that students "appealing 3 grades could face up to a £450 out of pocket payment", which many candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds will be "unable to foot."

Despite the uproar surrounding A-level results, Ofqual claim the model they used to assign grades took into account the “potential biases” facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds because of disparities in teacher assessment in general, teacher predicted grades and teacher estimated grades.

Ofqual defended its approach, saying: “without standardisation there was the potential for students to be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged, depending on the school or college they attended and the approach they took.”


Mountain View

The eight charts that explain the University’s 2019-2020 undergraduate admissions data

In England, the government has introduced a triple lock system whereby students who are not satisfied with their grades are able to appeal and receive their mock examination grades or re-sit exams in Autumn. 

"By ensuring students have the safety net of their mock results, as well as the chance of sitting autumn exams, we are creating a triple lock process to ensure confidence and fairness in the system," said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

However, the triple lock system, only announced on Tuesday (11/08), has also received criticism from head teachers and teachers union’s because of the diverse way mock exams are organised across schools.

The different style of mock examinations means this safety net policy will be inconsistent depending upon how a pupil’s school ran their mock exams. The triple lock system has been accused of further reinforcing disadvantages faced by students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who may have not performed highly in their mock examinations or who may not have received as much support during the mock examination season compared to students from less deprived backgrounds and schools.