Speech: HE Admissions Conference

Welcome everyone and thank you for attending today’s event. And a particular thanks to all at the Royal Society for hosting this event today.

Perhaps unusually, I want to start today by covering something that we will not be talking about in this event – inter subject comparability. Many of you will know that we held a conference in February that attracted the odd headline. Of course, you will all take a keen interest in this subject, but I do want to stress that we are not about to make any immediate changes in this area. The conference was purely an initial conversation and an opportunity to hear a number of perspectives on a debate that has existed for decades.

Some commentators latched onto small elements of the research presented at the conference to attempt to draw definitive conclusions. This was and is a mistake. We are engaged in a conversation that seeks to explore options with the sector to reach a judgement. Our conference was followed by an on-line survey that closed last Friday. We are in the early stages of considering the responses to the survey, as well as the views expressed at the conference.

So on the subject of inter-subject comparability we are at the start of a potentially long and complex journey during which we are looking at whether anything should be done just as much as we are looking at what could be done. By contrast, the reforms to GCSEs and A Levels are both certain and proximate and it is here that we will focus most of today’s discussions.

We will, of course, talk about the major changes at both GCSE and A Level. Some changes are unique to GCSE or A Levels and others are common to both; here, we can explore the implications of the move to linear assessment in place of the previous modular approach and of course the changes we have made to controlled assessment. I am particularly looking forward to the Royal Society perspective on changes to the assessment of science practicals. We will also dwell on some of the specifics of GCSE reforms, just to make sure that we have a common understanding of the new grading system and how it compares to the current system.

Discussions of the GCSE grading system will, inevitably, lead us to consider our approach to awarding. You will want to understand what this looks like in the transition period and beyond. I suspect you will be particularly interested in the key grade boundaries and want to understand how to relate the current GCSE letters to future numbers. And of course this includes the higher grades where at A and A* are being replaced by grades 7, 8 and 9. We might look at what this means for admissions – particularly in the context of a reduction in the numbers of students likely to sit the reformed and ‘de-coupled’ AS levels. And we will also touch on the challenges for AS level awarding this year that result from both de-coupling and reform.

I am delighted that we will be able to hear from a range of contributors on what the implications of these changes might look like in practice. Clearly UCAS, Universities UK and Supporting Professionalism in Admissions will all have a view, as will the admissions community. And I am delighted to welcome colleagues from Wales and Northern Ireland who will give an overview of the changes being made to their qualifications. The panel discussion that we have planned should be thought provoking and informative.

We also want to take the opportunity to bring you up to date with two of our most recent consultations and what we have learned from them. It is not possible to be definitive at this stage, but we will be able to give you a good sense of our thinking on resits for both A levels and GCSE as well as possible changes to the enquiries about results and appeals process – even though this consultation has a few days left to run.

And of course we do recognise that although GCSEs and A levels represent the more traditional route to higher education, they are of course not the only qualifications that provide access to universities. I think you will find the presentation by our Executive Director for Vocational Qualifications very useful in calibrating your thinking here.

So today should provide a real opportunity to get under the skin of the GCSE and A level reform programme and get a better understanding of what it means for admissions to higher education. The last session of the day will be an opportunity to clarify any questions you have. But I hope you will not wait until then to engage in discussion; today is about interaction and sharing ideas.

We will capture our conversations today and publish the key themes and importance facts on our website along with the presentations you have heard today. Enjoy the day – and please contribute fully – we are as keen to hear your views as we are to explain the changes we are making.

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