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An update on 2020 admissions

Posted on Aug 27

5 min read

College Events & News

Dr Victoria Harvey took up her post at St John’s on 1 March 2020. Within weeks the world had changed significantly and it became clear that this would be anything but a ‘normal’ year for admissions. Here she describes the activity that has taken place in College to address the challenges posed by the 2020 A-level grading.

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Dr Victoria Harvey

The weaknesses in the 2020 A-level grading system have understandably concerned many in the extended College community over the last two weeks. No doubt everyone is aware of the fiasco surrounding the never-to-be-mentioned-again algorithm, the not-so-nimble sidestep to Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) and the mass uprising of Twitter in support of the disheartened Year 13 cohort and their bewildered Head teachers. Fewer people are familiar with the detail of the admissions process, and so I would like to share how my office and the wider College have worked around the challenges posed this year.

The Admissions Office actually receives the A-Level results a week before the pupils under strict embargo, meaning we cannot discuss them with schools or pupils. This head start gives us a chance to process the results and have a first look at the files of candidates who are near misses in the context of any mitigating circumstances they may have already informed us of. This year was somewhat different, as we had already experienced the fallout from the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the Scottish Higher results, which were released in previous weeks. We therefore held back a little more on our timeline to enable us to work in step with colleagues across the University and ensure that candidates were treated fairly and equally, regardless of which college had made them an offer.

By results day, we had confirmed 167 places out of our target 172: this was predominantly offer holders who had met the conditions of their offer, but there were a handful of candidates who, as initial data analysis showed, would most likely have been disproportionately impacted by the algorithm, and who we therefore chose to reprieve very early on. College planning for a COVID-19 secure site was in full swing, with careful consideration given to how we could safely accommodate and support our 2020 students. Nevertheless, there was still a pile of files on my desk of candidates who we felt needed further consideration; their results were not in line with all the other information we had about them.

Fortunately, the summer pool system gives these candidates another chance of reprieve, and gives the College the chance to see files of other candidates who had been very successful but did not yet have a place. Adjustment candidates in this pool went through the Cambridge interview process but did not receive an offer at the time. They are eligible for Adjustment if they meet certain widening participation criteria and achieve results that meet at least the standard Cambridge offer. We were fortuitous to secure three such candidates from the Adjustment cohort, who had achieved stellar results in spite of all the kerfuffle. Two of them had initially applied to St John’s, and we were delighted to welcome them back.

Unfortunately, not all the candidates we placed in the pool were so successful, and I used the small window of opportunity to reprieve a couple more very deserving cases by the end of the day. By this time there was an inkling that things weren’t right at the top, and the government was coming under pressure to ‘do something’. Twitter was doing its best to exert pressure on individual colleges; and my alma mater (who shall remain unnamed) had broken rank and ‘done the right thing’, compounding the pressure colleges were under to confirm the entire cohort. Cambridge operates a different admissions system to that other place ­– and high profile, public-pleasing demonstrations would not work within our collegiate and cohesive operation. The pools are a way of moderating the cohort right up until the last minute.

Of course, individual colleges made autonomous decisions about their candidates — as is their right — but they did so quietly, and I am grateful to them for this subtlety, as it gave me a chance to examine thoroughly the files of every single candidate who held an offer from us that they had not met. Over the weekend I spoke with candidates, their parents and their teachers, all desperately upset and completely disillusioned by the system. It was not much of a surprise when, on Monday afternoon, Ofqual announced that they would scrap the algorithm in favour of CAGs.

This announcement reduced the outstanding pile of files on my desk somewhat, as new offer holders now met the terms of their offers. There was still a severe pressure on numbers across the University, and a wholescale reprieve outside of this would have been very problematic. At this point I also had another window to reprieve the last few whose cases were exceptionally compelling. We did not take everyone; to do so would have put the College and the University under considerable strain in a very difficult year, where we are trying to keep the students and the community safe from this devastating virus. But we did take 12% more than a normal year, and our stats for widening participation are better than they have ever been.

The period of anxiety for these candidates, and for the wider St John’s community, was painfully extended as a result of concern over numbers, the will to act in tandem with colleagues, and the Government’s rather erratic decision making. I am pleased to reassure you now that we have a bumper cohort arriving in 2020, with the highest proportion of state school entrants for at least the last 10 years, and probably since the 1980s. We have a significant proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those from quintiles 1 and 2 of the Index of Multiple Deprivation. When looking at reprieves we prioritised intersectionality: one or other contextual index (POLAR, IMD, FSM) does not always pick up the overlap of multiple disadvantage, and these candidates are often the most vulnerable to algorithms or other forms of moderation.

As I finish writing this I am due to update the College COVID-19 operational planning group on admissions numbers for 2020. In spite of the fact that I am significantly over the working numbers assumption, and that my update today will inevitably send some of the group back to the drawing board, I have absolute confidence that the staff and Fellows on this working group (aptly named Covid Silver) will be able to adapt plans to cater safely for this cohort. My overwhelming sense of the College since arriving on 1 March is one of generosity and good will. The students are at the heart of everything we do. I am also grateful to all the alumni who took the time to write or call during these crazy few weeks. We are fortunate to have a Johnian community who really care about issues surrounding admissions; you have enabled us to provide outstanding financial support alongside the outstanding education our students receive, and our cohort continues to diversify as a result.

Follow updates from the Undergraduate Admissions Office on Twitter and find information about virtual open days and admissions clinics on the College website

Read more about the University of Cambridge’s use of contextual data here: