The Guardian Exclusive: Sevenoaks policy reveals predictions for lowest-performing students may be boosted ‘to facilitate application to a more selective university’
One of the UK’s most prestigious private schools has a policy of asking teachers to exaggerate predicted exam results for some of its lowest-performing students on university applications to help them secure offers, documents seen by the Guardian reveal.
Sevenoaks school, which charges more than £38,000 a year for boarding pupils, prides itself on its students’ “tremendous record of achievement” in winning university places.
Guidelines set out in the minutes of internal meetings and the 2019-20 teachers’ handbook reveal that for about 20 lower-performing students who may be in danger of missing out on their preferred degree course, staff are asked to increase their predicted grades on their Ucas applications.
The documents seen by the Guardian say that such changes in predictions for the International Baccalaureate (IB) exams, which the school uses instead of A-levels, will be “usually accommodated”.
Sevenoaks school charges more than £38,000 a year for boarding pupils. Photograph: David Willis/Alamy Stock Photo
They also say that predictions may be improved for a few other students by a single grade in a specific subject “to facilitate an application to a more selective university/course”.
Ucas guidance on predicted grades says that they should not be “influenced by university or college entry requirements or behaviours – predicted grades should be set in isolation of an applicant’s university or college choice(s)”.
Of those receiving single-grade increases, the school’s policy adds: “[T]his is only to support the application and it is not assumed that the student will achieve this grade.”
In total, Sevenoaks’ higher education department seeks to increase about 1 in 12 pupils’ predicted grades each year, the documents say. The policy is said to have been in place for “many years”.
The school rebutted any suggestion that it would unfairly exaggerate Ucas predictions, adding that all predicted grades were “based on what is realistic and achievable for pupils” in line with Ucas guidelines. It said that the number of students meeting or exceeding their predictions “significantly outperforms the national average”.
The disclosures will be greeted with anger by critics of private schools who fear that such practices are commonplace. While British universities usually make conditional offers of places, they sometimes accept students who miss their predicted results if they have been otherwise persuaded of their merit.
“We’ve known this sort of thing is happening for some time, but it’s the brazenness of writing it down,” said Francis Green, professor of work and education economics at University College London and co-author of Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem.
While it might seem that any advantage gained by over-predicting would be negated by a poor exam performance, such practices “open doors” for pupils who may otherwise never be considered for a place at their preferred university, said Tom Richmond, director of the EDSK education thinktank, which published a report last week calling for the removal of predicted grades from the admissions process.
“If a course has a three B requirement, and a student comes in with a higher prediction, then the chances of getting a very low or unconditional offer dramatically increases,” Richmond said. “They might think they’re getting themselves a really good student who might in a competitive environment risk being whisked away by someone else.”
Grades are notoriously difficult to predict consistently. Sevenoaks said that 96.5% of pupils met or exceeded the conditions of a university offer in 2019, but figures for 2018 show that around 26% missed their school-predicted grades at Sevenoaks that year, a separate measure.
Because the coronavirus pandemic means that exams have been cancelled, IB – like other exam bodies – will be using predicted grades submitted to them as part of their calculations for final results this year. These predictions are made at a later stage in the academic calendar to the Ucas predictions referred to in the Sevenoaks policy, which predates the pandemic.
“This is getting a lot of scrutiny because now we’re relying purely on these calculated grades,” Dr Gill Wyness, of UCL’s Institute for Education, said of the coronavirus provisions. “Ofqual will be paying a lot of attention and that’s a really good thing.” The school emphasised that the process is “entirely separate from Ucas predictions and follows the relevant government, Ofqual, JCQ and exam board guidelines”.
Sevenoaks is run by acting head Theresa Homewood before the arrival of a permanent replacement, Jesse Elzinga, for the next academic year. The school was named independent secondary s0chool of the Year for 2018. The then headteacher, Katy Ricks, who left at the end of that academic year for King Edward’s School Birmingham after 16 years at the school, explained: “We love getting good results, but our aim is education for its own sake.”
The handbook says that “accurate predicted grades are important both for the student … and for the school”, and that teachers are asked to take into account previous exam results, work throughout the year and their own professional judgment.
But it goes on to say that in “a small number of cases (approximately 20 per year) even these predictions will not be sufficient for the higher education aspirations of the student”.
For these pupils, the document says that the higher education department “will... go back again to heads of department and ask whether the prediction may be upgraded to facilitate the application”.
The document continues: “These interventions are almost exclusively made on behalf of lower-achieving students.” But it notes that in some other cases where students want to apply for a course that has a minimum requirement above their prediction, single-grade increases will be considered.
Internal minutes of a 2018 meeting reiterate the guidelines and note that requests for students on “low” predictions of 31-32 points out of a possible 45 on the IB’s scale will be “usually accommodated” and increased to 34 points, which the minutes say “opens up many more courses”.
Notes from another meeting, in September 2019, say that such increases “can occasionally cause issues” and suggests that students may be upgraded from 30 points to 34 so that they have “more options” – the equivalent of a grade higher in four of the six subjects that are typically studied.
A Sevenoaks spokesperson said: “We are confident in the integrity of our processes and refute any suggestion that we would unfairly exaggerate Ucas predictions. All Ucas predicted grades are based on what is realistic and achievable for the pupils, in line with Ucas’s guidelines which make clear that predicted grades should be ‘aspirational but achievable’. A significant majority of Sevenoaks students meet or exceed their Ucas predicted grades and, in this respect, we significantly outperform the national average.”
Arguing that it would be in no school’s interests to inflate predicted grades, the spokesperson said: “The school’s successful record in relation to university entries is clear evidence that its predicted grades processes are effective and justified. Of our leavers in 2019, 96.5% met or exceeded the conditions of their university offer.”
(Source: The Guardian)