The University of Oxford may accept applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who miss their A-Level grades this year.

The University told Cherwell that it will use its existing clemency policy to account for “educational disruption” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It adds that students from underperforming schools may be “unfairly affected” by the grading of A-levels.

Director of undergraduate admissions Samina Khan told the Times that Oxford will use contextual information for students who miss their offer by one or two grades. This will include the school they attended and where they live.

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This comes after concern over the awarding of A-level results, which will be based on teacher assessments and schools’ past exam performances.

A report from the Equality Act Review found that teacher assessment could negatively impact BAME pupils and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “Like all universities, Oxford is very concerned about the long term effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including the impact on offer holders and applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those who have experienced educational disruption.

“We have stressed that educational disruption would have severe knock-on effects for young people from under-represented backgrounds, and have offered advice to Ofqual, DfE [Department for Education] and OfS [Office for Students] on how to best support these students.”

“We will not have exact information about our offer holders until A-level results day, and will therefore not know to what extent we need to use our existing clemency policy – which allows us to reconsider applications where there are clear mitigating circumstances.

“If the results show young people experiencing disadvantage were unfairly affected by the mechanism used to issue A Level grades, Oxford will do everything possible within the boundaries of the OfS conditions and the imposed DfE student number controls to help these students. We are fortunate that we hold a wealth of information on the students who have been made offers by Oxford, including admissions test and interview scores.

“This information, alongside if a student comes from a disadvantaged background, or a poor performing school, will help us assess if clemency needs to be exercised, because despite narrowly missing their A levels, this student is likely to flourish at Oxford and the University’s academic standards will be maintained.” 

The University will make decisions on students who failed to achieve their offer in the weeks before results day and applicants will be informed on 13th August.

In the most recent Oxford admission cycle, 69.1% of offers went to state school students and the number of students admitted from disadvantaged backgrounds increased.

Joe Seddon, CEO of mentoring platform Zero Gravity, said: “The new Ofqual grading system – which calibrates students’ A-Level grades by the historic performance of their school – threatens to lock talented students from underperforming state schools out of top universities through no fault of their own.

“Critics will condemn Oxford’s move as social engineering. But there are few better examples of social engineering than a grading system which gives affluent offer holders an advantage due to the historic performance of their school.

“Attention must now turn to preventing the impending social mobility disaster facing students applying to university this year. Oxford undergrads are already leading by example through organisations like Zero Gravity, but more still needs to be done to ensure that the brightest minds reach the best universities in these unprecedented times.”

However, Oxford’s approach has faced criticism. Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, told The Times: “The results this year will be fake grades but what Oxford is doing is social engineering. It is not fair to admit a teenager who has missed their offer because they come from a poor background and a poorly performing state school.”

Ofqual, the exam regulator, said: “Most students will receive grades this summer to enable them to move on with their lives, despite the cancellation of exams, and we expect the majority of grades students receive will be the same as the centre assessment grades submitted by their school or college.

“Standardisation will draw on the historical outcomes of a centre as well as the prior performance of students in this year’s cohort.

“From the data we have reviewed, centre assessment grades are higher than predicted – by on average 12 percentage points at A-level grade A, when compared with 2019 — and the standard applied by different schools and colleges varies significantly.

“That is not surprising, as teachers were not given an opportunity to develop a common approach to grading and naturally want the best for their students. Some centres that have been optimistic about their students’ performance would have been correct and others incorrect, but in the absence of exams, there is no fair way to identify which.

“So that students can compete on a level playing field with their peers in this, previous and future years, it is essential that centre assessment grades are standardised using the model we have developed with input from experts across the sector.”

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