On the 13thAugust, teenagers up and down the country awaited their A level results but, for the first time, without actually having sat the exams. Teachers submitted predicted results which were then taken by the government to be used with a specially formulated algorithm to work out the final grade. This algorithm, devised by the regulator Ofqual, has shown to give substantial weight to the past performances of schools, which resulted in nearly 40% of marks being downgraded, in some cases, by more than one grade. Not the results day students were hoping for.
Labour has said that this algorithm used to determine (or more truthfully, downgrade) the A level exam results has breached anti-discrimination legislation. “Ofqual is effectively tying in students to the performance of previous students at their school, which is no way a representation of an individual’s ability to do well,” says Michael Bell, father of Lexie Bell, who was predicted A*AA but was incredibly worried about the use of the algorithm as in the last three years no candidate at her school has achieved above a C grade in her chosen subjects.
Many students who did not achieve their originally predicted grades on results day chose to go through clearing in order to be able to secure a place at university, even if it wasn’t at their first or second choice, and with a completely different course. This has meant that many courses have been filled simply through students panicking and accepting any offer they can get in the hope that they can start university this September. Fortunately, there are many universities who have said that they will honour all offers that they have made to students before and after the original results were announced, such as Worcester College, Oxford and Queen’s University, Belfast. This being said, there are still many students who have said that their places at such universities have since been withdrawn. In an attempt to open up space and help more students have the chance to study what they originally intended at university, Durham have promised to offer a bursary and a guarantee of accommodation to all students who defer their place until 2021. However, other universities don’t have this luxury and are struggling to accommodate those who still want to start in September.
Protests up and down the country in response to this have shown just how much this algorithm has affected the lives of teenagers, with particular coverage showing protestors chanting “fuck the algorithm” outside England’s Department for Education. These protests, along with online petitions, caused the government to make a humiliating U-turn on Monday 17thAugust, less than two working days after the results were released, and stated that the students’ grades would be based solely off the teachers’ assessments. Finally. In light of the debacle, the temporary cap on the number of places that universities can offer has been lifted, but many students who have now got the grades they originally wanted still might struggle to be accepted on to their desired course due to those who have taken up places through clearing.
This algorithm disaster has not only been a metaphorical display of the Tory government’s leadership abilities but has showcased the inequality that is ever so present in the education system. Data has suggested that fee-paying private schools disproportionately benefited from the algorithm, showing an increase of 4.7 percent in A grades, meanwhile state funded schools saw an increase of just 2 percent – less than half. The fact that students were discriminated upon solely based on their postcode is genuinely unfathomable. The algorithm has shown the fallacy of the meritocracy we claim to have in the UK – meritocracy meaning a social system, society, or organisation in which people get success or power because of their abilities, not because of their money or social position. This ‘meritocracy’ in the UK characterises education and attainment, but the algorithm has showcased the innate inequalities of the system that we often do not see due to occasional underdogs performing to higher standards than expected. In 2018, The Sutton Trust, who works to increase social mobility, conducted a study that showed that 60 percent of private school students in higher education go on to attend Russel Group universities contrasted with less than a quarter of students from state comprehensive schools and six forms attending similar institutions.
This algorithm shouldn’t come as a shock as it has laid bare the severe problems of the education system which already exist: kids from good schools in affluent places go to good universities, and the algorithm has meant that the exceptions who would have got their grades despite more difficult social barriers have been made to conform to the typical stereotype of poor performance.
The Ofqual algorithm scandal has highlighted the fact that there is indeed an unfairness in education opportunities across the nation. But this algorithm has a different name, it’s called structural inequality.
By Grace Browne
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