The omnishambles our impressively incompetent government manages to engineer in every area it is responsible for may be deeply damaging for all those affected, but from time to time the mess it makes opens the possibility that some long-term benefit might nevertheless inadvertently come from it. The entirely unfunny farce those responsible have made of what they are choosing to call this year’s ‘A-level results’ is a case in point. How schools, parents and A-level students are supposed to have any confidence whatever that the ‘results’ are any kind of reflection of the students’ ability is anybody’s guess. Prospective employers can have equally little confidence in the capabilities of students who haven’t been able to go to school for the past five months and are now being made the victims of the pandemic twice-over. Universities are being told that the ‘results’ they based their selections on may change at the last minute and are being requested to ‘keep places open’ for students, seemingly indefinitely. Which last makes it clear that those making the request have no idea about how a university runs. So how could any possible benefit come from this deplorable chaos?
Whatever uncertainty and stress the shambles is wreaking on those directly affected in 2020, the one thing it is unquestionably doing is focusing a spotlight on the predictive omniscience of A-level results, which, with the notable exception of the Open University, are normally lazily fetishized as the almost exclusive means of determining whether or not students are fit to breathe the rarefied atmosphere of higher education. This is particularly the case with those universities that like to see themselves, and make sure the media depict them, as the ‘top’ universities, and collude in the development of league-table indices to that end. This year, for once, all universities are being forced to face the possibility that the highly fluid 2020 A-level results may not be a reliable indicator of a student’s potential to succeed at university.
In 1985 in South Africa, when I became the Dean responsible for admissions to the Faculty of Arts on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, the apartheid system had, very deliberately, made sure that the school-leaving results of black students were almost completely useless as an indicator of university potential. Apart from anything else, one had to contend with the results from 17 different Departments of Education and national Examination Boards, which all set different school-leaving exams. To cite just one of countless examples, I arrived back at my office one evening, after a day spent on the university’s campus in Durban, to find a flustered PA and a Zulu-speaking student who had arrived early in the morning, refused to go away without seeing me, and sat himself down on the floor of the corridor outside my office all day to wait for me. His school leaving results had earned him a total of 13 points from his six subjects in a system which prescribed a minimum requirement of 28 points for admission, barring ‘Dean’s discretion’. He was highly articulate, obviously highly intelligent, and nothing if not persistent and committed, so I took a chance, and the Dean accordingly exercised his discretion. The student in question took 13 subjects instead of the required ten, completed the degree in the minimum three years, and never had a result lower than an upper second. He had obviously been given the wrong candidate’s school-leaving results. Another Dean, I hoped at a different university, was probably left wondering what on earth could have happened to make the student who received my student’s results fail first year so badly.
So if you couldn’t rely on school-leaving results what could your do to find students who had the potential to do well at university in spite of their schooling? One answer was to set up what we called the Test-Teach-Test programme, TTT for short, which was based on the research of Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli psychologist who developed a theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability. To grossly oversimplify, the implementation of this theory involved an iterative process of asking a candidate to take a test, ‘teaching’ the right answers and the reasoning behind them, getting the aspirant student to take the same test again, then assessing the difference between the two sets of answers, and potentially repeating the exercise. We took in significant numbers of black students on this basis who wouldn’t have had a hope of being admitted otherwise, and many of them justified our faith in them. The prior question, of course, was who to test. School results were a good place to start: if a student had come first out of a class of 160, that fact might be a better indicator than a final mark of, say, 55%. We wanted rural students as well as urban ones, so we sent people out to villages in the hills and valleys to identify likely candidates for the tests via, among other methods, asking the village elders who they thought were the really bright school-leavers. And so on.
The situation in UK is obviously vastly different and A-level results are a much better predictor than the results we had to try to deal with. But rich parents do have their sometimes not very bright students intensively tutored in ways poor parents can’t; the children of highly educated parents generally have resource availability and other advantages over those of less well-educated ones; some children come from broken homes, others have home lives wholly unconducive to study; some schools have better teachers and resources than others; some pupils choose A-level subjects they aren’t suited to, and others choose subjects some universities treat with contempt. All this is blindingly obvious, but ‘contextual’ factors still seem to play far too insignificant a role in student selection, compared to A-level results, at most universities. If universities really want to take in the students best suited to university study they need to take such factors much more seriously than they do. Whatever the outcome of the 2020 A-level omnishambles, it is going to force the university sector as a whole to focus its collective mind on A-level results in a way it hasn’t had to before. So in this one aspect, at least, this government’s incompetence might have done higher education and future students a favour. It is also just possible that in the long term the UK university sector might find that in such matters there are one or two things the ‘developed’ world might usefully learn from the ‘developing’ world.