Reversing previous decisions about the grades awarded to students whose education has been interrupted makes some kind of sense, but only some. The problem is that we expect grades to mean three somewhat different things, all at once.
In the first place, grades are given for achievement – reflecting the knowledge, skills and competencies that students have demonstrated. This is problematic in the current situation, because even if the grades are given fairly, they will reflect the position of students who will have done several months less work or development than previous cohorts have done.
Second, grades are supposed to represent potential – not what students have actually achieved, but what they might be capable of doing with further development. If present achievement gave us a clear guide to the future, that might work – but it doesn’t, and there’s always been the suspicion that it says more about the preparedness of the school and the resources that school students are offered than it does of the abilities of the pupil. This was a problem before the pandemic, and it will be a problem long after it. The truth is that we only have very unreliable predictors of what students might be capable of – A levels, in particular, often make over-fine distinctions between very narrow bands across the grades, and are a weak guide to university performance.
Third, the grades represent opportunities, and impose limits on those opportunities. If a student wants to study medicine, for example, the opening will depend more on high academic performance than it does on personal experience, sensitivity, commitment or interpersonal skills (the sort of thing that we used explore in interviews for social work places).
The emphasis on opportunity is the argument that has carried the day. In Scotland, the decision will make it possible for more than 3000 students to go into a university course they wouldn’t otherwise have been admitted to. Many people will look at that and say: why not? But there is an objection: increased opportunities within the current system might just mean that people have more opportunity to fail. The French system opens doors to everyone with the Baccalaureat, but it fails half the students after the first year. In the UK, the institutions with the most liberal admissions policies are also likely to be the lower status institutions, and they may lose up to 20% of their students as the course goes on. It doesn’t follow that we’re wasting those students’ time, but far too many university courses work on the principle that students must ‘sink or swim’. I’d be more confident in the process if at the outset there were more engagement with students and more emphasis on developing the skills they’ll need to qualify.