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Oxbridge ‘less flexible’ amid A-level grade inflation crackdown

Oxbridge colleges are ‘less flexible’ this year with regard to admitting the brightest school leavers, a headteacher at one of the country’s leading academy chains has said (Joe Giddens/PA)
Oxbridge colleges are ‘less flexible’ this year with regard to admitting the brightest school leavers, a headteacher at one of the country’s leading academy chains has said (Joe Giddens/PA)

Oxbridge colleges are “less flexible” this year with regard to admitting the brightest school leavers, a headteacher at one of the country’s leading academy chains has said.

Alison Downey, principal of Ark Putney Academy in south-west London, said high-achieving pupils are finding it tougher to get accepted into Oxford or Cambridge University than in previous years.

She said A-level results at her school mirror national trends of top marks edging closer to 2019 levels, the last time students sat A-level exams before the pandemic.

Around 60,000 fewer A and A* grades were awarded to this year’s cohort on Thursday – the sharpest fall on record – after exam boards were ordered to crack down on grade inflation.

Entries receiving the top grades of A* and A are down 8.4 points from a record 44.8% last year to 36.4% – but still up on 25.4% in 2019 when teachers’ predictions were used.

Four out of 10 British candidates who applied to top universities this summer were rejected, research has found, often in favour of overseas students who pay higher tuition fees.

Ms Downey, who leads one of the 39 schools in the Ark Trust, one of Britain’s best-performing academy chains, said universities overall are being flexible with admissions.

But she told the PA news agency: “I think it’s less flexible at the top end for the elite universities, but that is to be expected given how many children deferred last year.”

Asked if she was referring to Oxbridge, she replied: “Yes.”

“It has been difficult but, as in any circumstance, the children who have worked the hardest have got what they deserve,” she added.

Many of Britain’s most selective universities were over-subscribed when grades shot up during the pandemic.

It meant that nine Russell Group universities, excluding Oxbridge, offered students cash and other incentives totalling almost £9 million to defer their places last year.

Space is particularly tight at Oxford and Cambridge as many first and third-year students live in college accommodation and have one-to-one tutorials.

There were mixed emotions for students opening their results slips at Ark Putney Academy on Thursday morning, part of the most disrupted cohort of students since the Second World War.

Somalian refugee Nagma Abdi, 18, secured her first choice of the London School of Economics to study social anthropology, with grades of ABC.

Reflecting on the “quite challenging” past two years, she said: “We weren’t sure whether the exams would happen; then there were questions about grade boundaries and the (exam) questions because we’ve had changed curriculums.”

But Igor Kurnik, 18, missed his offers for the University of Warwick and the University of Nottingham by just two marks, scoring all Bs rather than ABB, and is now entering the Ucas clearing process to get a place elsewhere.

“Everyone can put excuses out, and the only one I can think of is that we didn’t have GCSE exams to prepare, so that might have impacted the amount of revision people did,” he said.