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Empty exam hall | The Good Schools Guide18 August 2020

UCAS is unsung villain of A levels fiasco, says Ralph Lucas, editor-in-chief of The Good Schools Guide.

UCAS has known for years and years that something like 75% of pupils are over-predicted1, but have done nothing to improve things.

They know that disadvantaged children are particularly over-predicted – but have not, as far as I know, mounted a large-scale investigation into the reasons for this underperformance – which might have led to ways of reducing it.

The government could have, and should have, kicked UCAS into action.

They know in what schools for what subjects for what kind of child over-prediction (and indeed under-prediction) happens, and how much, and in what circumstances. 

UCAS allows universities to advertise inflated entry requirements, more than their student intake ever achieves. And worse they refuse to share this data with any other organisation which prevents scrutiny of such outlandish entry requirements - unless you're prepared to pay tens of thousands of pounds. All of which contributes to the practice of over prediction.

If we are going to use predicted grades in helping children and universities choose each other, they should be accurate. Regular detailed feedback from UCAS to schools, with real disincentives for long-term wayward prediction, should cure it in half a dozen years.

That would lay the groundwork for universities to build trust in schools’ evaluation of pupils – pupils that they have lived with up close for seven years, who they know better than the university ever will – and to choose their students based on a much richer appreciation than exam results alone can ever give.

We have allowed a system to develop where 20% of pupils seriously underachieve (relative to teacher predictions) inexplicably and contrary to their potential. UCAS has buried this, rather than throwing its energy into abolishing the waste of talent. This year, that lump of underachievement was (until the government changed its mind and accepted CAGs) visited at random on all candidates: the 20% who would have underperformed and the 80% who would not have.

We should take this opportunity to give UCAS a thorough going over. Its systems are old and inefficient, and yet again managed to crash on A Level results day - with a level of demand they somehow failed to predict It is owned by the universities, and acts in their interests – hence the great deficiency in the course information that is made available to pupils (even the most basic of information like the number of places available and the historic number of applications per course, what percentage of pupils drop out, why they drop out, and what jobs students end up in). Where else would you pay £50,000 based on such one-sided information?

With luck we will never be here again – but we should not let our anger go to waste. We should use it to power change.

One sensible (to my mind) solution would be to deny UCAS the monopoly of university applications - universities have to sign up to recruiting their applicants through them -  and let some pupil-centred organisations compete with them. Technology has moved on a long way since the centralised approach that UCAS first adopted back in the days when paper applications were the norm, and could easily handle a bit of diversity. 

Click here for The Good Schools Guide's latest advice regarding 2020's coronavirus-hit A levels and GCSE result.

1https://ucu.org.uk/media/8409/Predicted-grades-accuracy-and-impact-Dec-16/pdf/Predicted_grades_report_Dec2016.pdf

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