Making sense of post qualification application

Charlotte Harrison, head of sixth form at St Margaret’s School, looks at the effectiveness of post qualification application, how it will work and whether schools support it

For at least the last 20 years, post qualification application (PQA) has been a periodically resurfacing topic of discussion for those involved in higher education (HE) applications and admissions.

Typically used as a political football, current proposals promise much: fairer access to top courses for all, an end to years of inaccurate predicted grade reporting from schools (mostly from the independent sector according to UCAS figures), less stress on students, streamlining the HE admissions process, eradication of insurance choices and conditional offer making.

Of course, the premise behind PQA 2.0 is not simply to avoid a similar situation were schools to be faced with another global pandemic.

On average, students will be sitting on five conditional offers, which they need to whittle down to one firm choice and one insurance course choice. This process is inefficient for developing UCAS application systems, which can now manage staggered applications, those applying with multiple types of qualifications and also those who are entering HE outside of the traditional academic year cycles.

Some students in the current system are also awarded unconditional offers. These have become a by-word for students who risk taking their foot off the gas at A-level, with plenty of evidence suggesting students underperform in this current system. A PQA system may remove this inertia and support those predisposed to, and at most risk of, underperformance.

More emphasis on enrichment and holistic development

However, making applications after results day would remove the motivation an offer provides for young people. Year 13 is notoriously a tough year with pulls in a number of different directions. With work, exams and admissions significantly impacting on mental health, the prospect of spending time researching and deciding on courses, only to find out the grades are out of ‘price range’ on results day, is potentially just as damaging.

Yet, schools may rethink the focus of their HE programmes, placing more emphasis on enrichment and holistic development of the individual as opposed to incentivising students to read Proust because it will ‘look good on the UCAS form’.

The move in part has been prompted by research suggesting students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to receive under predicted A-level grades and less access to support and advice throughout the cycle. This invariably leads to underperformance and students not gaining equal access to courses when they outperform predictions on results day. It is thought that the shift away from the current system will remove these faults in the system and the need for Clearing.

This system is fast becoming an increasingly complicated and resource-heavy system for HE providers and school staff, prolonging the admissions cycle well beyond its intended life into September; last year being a good case in point: universities holding open offers until 2020 applicants had retaken their A-level exams in October.

Clearing has upgraded its reputation from the ‘graveyard’ of unwanted courses and is a competitive ‘buyers’ market’ with plenty of excellent courses from Russell Group universities looking for students who have changed their mind and who wish to trade up (thus making the short-lived adjustment function redundant).

Many students see Clearing as a viable second chance. Some now actively put in their application on results day, knowing they will pick up something in Clearing. This system is not a million miles away from the spirit of proposed PQA options.

Changes beyond results day

Year 13 examinations in England may move back by a fortnight to align with counterparts in Scotland and IB candidates, in order to ensure a level playing field when results are released. PQA’s current proposal would also require students to submit all necessary paperwork after results day. In order to give universities time to process and select students, undergraduates may experience a January start.

A new system, which is end-loaded towards the summer of Year 13 is likely to incur a significant change to the well-known key dates of the current cycle which runs from September to September. Schools put structured programmes in place to educate and support students with all HE choices. These begin in Year 12 with flurries of activity around personal statement writing, applications window and results day, with school calendar structures designed around the current UCAS cycle.

Changes would necessitate additional school staffing, time and resources well beyond results day. It could provide schools with a real conflict of interest: welcoming new Year 12s in September, initiating the next cycle of Year 13 applications and also then managing Year 14s who have effectively ‘left’ the school. In an attempt to confirm final destinations, schools will effectively be dealing with a three-year sixth form for at least the first month of the autumn term.

With the number of 18 year olds in the UK set to rise, demand on resource will increase. The pastoral support a school provides on results day and beyond, both for students and families, will also be called upon. However, this could placate the discussions heads and bursars have with at least one parent every year about why they are paying fees when their child ‘is not receiving any teaching’ during the examinations period.

post qualification application
Charlotte Harrison, director of sixth form at St Margaret’s School

Moving to a January ‘model’

Oxbridge has openly welcomed the move to PQA, though details of how a lengthy and resource-hungry competitive admissions process would work, with the often hidden but considerable support independent schools offer these students, has yet to be revealed. Recent moves to online interviews and entrance examinations may provide part of the answer.

However, if students choose to do this in school, the onus is placed on staff to provide serviceable equipment, training to use new online platforms and ensure the interview goes smoothly in a secure environment. The accountability stakes are raised.

A move to a January model is significant for schools. In time, it may mean we all synchronise with this model, with Christmas being the predominant holiday instead of summer, a model we know is favoured by the current Government. Schools should see this as an opportunity: the current proposed model leaves a full term’s worth of time for recent leavers to submit informed and well-researched applications, support alumni initiatives, prepare for undergraduate study, volunteer and give back to the local community.

A second option mooted is the post qualification offer (PQO) system. Students would submit their applications as usual in the winter preceding their final examinations, but universities would not offer until results are confirmed in August.

Schools may prefer this option as it aligns with existing timeframes. Staffing and resource, heads of department and UCAS teams, would have to be a guaranteed presence onsite to help students. Such a system may also unintentionally create a ‘clearing by default’ if students have not received their course[s] of choice and may need to go into a second or third round of application considerations. Such a system may also accrue many of the negatives aspects of the PQA: new time frames, resources and staffing issues but also some perceived faults of the old system such as Clearing.

Opportunity to redefine education at sixth form

UCAS advisors saw vast growth of virtual advice and resources this year, accommodating for those unable to travel to university open days and taster lectures. Such a move begins to address the disparity between those who have access to these resources and information routinely and those who do not.

Through platforms like Unibuddy all students can access top advice online for free. The internet, if you have it, is ‘the great leveller’ but is challenging the traditional role of independent schools who in the past have perhaps commodified the education and support around UCAS, alumni relations, networking and buying in speakers in order to give students the ‘edge’ as a USP to sixth forms.

The challenge for independent sixth forms now is to see how PQA or indeed PQO reforms will present an opportunity to rethink and redefine what sort of education we offer our sixth form students.

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