Covid-19 dramatically changes contextual recruitment

Aug 4, 2021 | Selection & assessment

David Steel, Employer Partnerships Manager at upReach, considers the impact of the pandemic on using school performance to contextualise academic achievements.

For decades, universities have implemented contextual admissions to make lower conditional offers to students from less advantaged backgrounds, typically those from low performing schools, low-income households or areas where few go to university.

For employers, school performance data is a key input into the contextual recruitment systems that a growing number use to identify disadvantaged students who’ve outperformed their peers academically.


Disruption of Covid

However, in a world where Covid-19 has caused school closures, loss of learning and cancellation of examinations, contextualising candidates using school performance data in the same way as in prior years is problematic for two primary reasons.

First is that school and subject performance data that allowed for contextual comparisons to be made between individuals isn’t going to be published for those receiving grades in 2020 or 2021.

Second, due to overall A Level grade inflation and inconsistencies across schools in how they award grades, using awarded grades to compare candidates is more imperfect than ever.

A candidate with an A grade in 2020 is likely to be at a lower standard in terms of what they learnt than a 2019 A grade candidate.

Equally, two candidates awarded A grades in 2020 (or 2021) may be of very different standards, and even be below that of a B grade candidate in the same year at another school where their assessment methods were more conservative. Note that disadvantaged candidates are statistically more likely to outperform their teachers’ prediction in an exam.


Case for re-evaluation

Employers using typical contextual recruitment platforms that use school performance data, or that filter out students by A Level grades should strongly consider re-evaluating their selection process. Failing to do so would mean disadvantaged, high potential candidates are disproportionately filtered out due to an arbitrary, unreliable measure of ability.

At a time when Covid-19 is exacerbating existing inequalities, considering an applicant’s achievements in context is more important than ever. However, it must be done in a way that takes into account the fact that disadvantaged candidates statistically outperform their teachers’ predictions, as well as the lack of up-to-date school performance data and the incomparable nature of grades awarded pre and post 2020.



With this in mind, upReach have enhanced their contextual recruitment platform, REALrating, to provide the optimal solution. These enhancements have been informed by our work with the Department for Education, as well as our A Level grade research, published by all major media in August 2020, which successfully challenged the government’s decision to award A Level grades via the controversial Ofqual algorithm.

Specifically, REALrating draws upon the analysis of 14 different indicators of socio-economic disadvantage to provide a research-backed and data-driven net indicator score between 0 and 24; the higher the score, the more obstacles a candidate has had to overcome.

The indicators include home postcode data (IMD / IDACI / POLAR4), over a decade’s worth of school performance data, as well as individual data such as their prior eligibility for free school meals or experience in care.

This overcomes the barrier of using single indicators or problematic A Level grades as a direct comparison for Covid-19 cohort students, whilst allowing employers to easily identify the most disadvantaged applicants, continue monitoring socio-economic data and ensure their application processes elevate less advantaged outperformers, rather than discriminate against them.

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This is an excerpt from the ISE Complete Guide to Student Recruitment and Development

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