How COVID-19 threatens diversity in education

Updated: May 18, 2020

This is a guest article by Christine Kinnear. Christine is the Founder of With Insight Education C.I.C., a not for profit organisation that works to increase the numbers of black-heritage pupils successfully applying to top 1/3 universities as a gateway to brighter professional futures.  She sits on the AccessHE BAME forum, is a school Chair of Governors and Vice-Chair of an arts education charity. 

In a parallel universe my daughter and thousands like her would be fast approaching exam season. It would have been her chance to show just how hard she’d worked over the years. It would have been her time to shine.

Instead, COVID-19 means that her grades will be reliant on a mixture of moderated teacher assessments and a ranking of students at their institution by performance for each grade and herein lies a very real risk to BAME students that their outcomes will not match their potential.

In 2019, analysis by Data Educator of over 19,000 predicted grades, across 22 subjects found 60 per cent to be incorrect. This was particularly the case for pupils in lower socio-economic groups which consists of a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic (BAME) students. These worrying findings build on those from The Sutton Trust’s 2017 Rules of the Game report which found that,

“high attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts”.

Why? Well, predictions are not an exact science.

Like many judgements they are subject to the same unconscious bias and tendency to be risk averse that afflict decisions in so many walks of life.

Black-heritage pupils experienced the largest proportional year on year increase to university in 2019. However, historically, this surge towards a degree education has been concentrated in attendance at lower and mid-tariff universities. I am concerned that the downward pressure on GCSE and A-Level grades will pose a huge threat to the diversity of intake at our leading universities.

My work is focused on supporting black-heritage pupils to successfully apply to top 1/3 universities. My organisation builds their confidence and ability to put higher-tariff universities, which sometimes require them to exceed their predicted grades, as their stretch choices. If such students are now to be capped by teacher assessment and how they rank in their class, undoubtedly, fewer of them will make it to the giddy heights of prestigious universities which offer the best springboard into a professional career and faster social mobility.

A picture of a graduation cap

As I write this, the ONS has released figures showing that the BAME community are being more severely affected by the corona virus than other groups. If, as I fear, BAME pupils are also disproportionate losers in the COVID-19 exam fall out then I hope to see renewed vigour right throughout the educational pipeline to mitigate the ongoing impact.

Here’s my wishlist:

1. Universities are facing a huge fall in fees as international students elect to stay at home.

It is this fee funding pot from which widening participation budgets are drawn. Therefore, I would like universities to protect widening participation budgets so that school outreach projects aimed at under-represented groups can continue at scale.

2. University summer schools are a great way for young people to experience the learning environment of a university.

GCSE grades are understandably used to filter applications so making contextualised offers will go some way to redressing the situation. This is something that a growing list of universities already do for degree applications, so the mechanisms and knowledge already exist to implement this.

3. A message that we drum home to our year 9 mentees is that GCSEs count!

For some university courses, it’s as much as 30% towards the decision to offer a place. It would be good to see this weighting revisited so that BAME pupils aren’t unduly penalised.

These young people receive tailored support to reinforce a sense of self-belief.  

For this, mentors could play a crucial role and now that we’re all used to communicating online, establishing a purposeful connection with a person who happens to be located elsewhere is even easier! 

The last impact report shows

100% mentor satisfaction
96% mentees secured top 1/3 university offers

Interested?  Then just email me at

A photo of Christine Kinnear