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A “racist and classist” algorithm – the A-level results fiasco

by Anna Southern

The Tories faced a huge backlash over the exams scandal (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The UK’s Tory government has been forced into a humiliating U-turn after their unfair A-level grading system caused outrage across the country. Students in England protested outside Downing Street this weekend, chanting “Boris Johnson’s a wanker!”, and “Justice for the Working Class!” This came after a ‘flawed’ algorithm was used to award their A-level grades. 1 Students will now receive their teacher assessed grades, in a significant win for working class youth.

The use of the ‘moderation’ algorithm resulted in in many student’s results being significantly downgraded. This year’s exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Alternative arrangements for grading were made by a government determined not to use teacher’s predicted grades. The result of the algorithm’s moderation was that students were awarded grades, which were based on where they were from and the schools they attended. Not on their own abilities and hard work.

This way of awarding grades was an attack on the ambitions and prospects of working class children, in an education system that is already stacked against them. National Union of Students (NUS) President, Larissa Kennedy, slammed the downgrading of A-Level results as “racist and classist”, as they disproportionally downgraded the most marginalised students. 2

Almost 40% of teacher’s predicted grades were downgraded by the algorithm, negatively affecting around 280,000 results. The algorithm disproportionally downgraded students from state comprehensive schools and sixth form colleges located in areas of socioeconomic deprivation. In contrast, students attending private schools were unlikely to see their predicted grades lowered. Private schools saw their share of A and A* grades rise by 4.7 percentage points in 2020, more than double the rise for comprehensive schools. 3

In many cases the algorithm’s downgrading led to students losing their university places, it is unclear whether the U-turn will completely undo this damage. Many students are may still have to defer until next year - an outcome that could cause them and their parent’s significant financial hardship.

The algorithm’s downgrading devastated hard-working disadvantaged kids, and privileged the already-privileged. Many tales of kids downgraded from AAA to BCC, from BBB to DEU have flooded social media. There were cases of language students being downgraded from a predicted A* to a D in their native language, and losing their place at university as a result of this. The stress caused to thousands of young people by this fiasco has been significant, and many are still unsure where they stand. Imagine potentially losing a chance at a better future because a computer rigged against your class said ‘no’.

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that if teacher’s predicted grades were allowed to stand: “pupils will be over-promoted into jobs that are beyond their competence”. I am glad to see that his government has changed position on this, but I doubt he has changed his mind. The irony - that Williamson himself has been described as being promoted above his competence- just fuels the anger at this outrage. How dare he write off state school kids as incompetent based on a dodgy algorithm!

The government initially hid behind the algorithm as an unbiased technological solution. Boris Johnson called it ‘robust’ then he went on holiday. However algorithms such as this can easily be biased based on who builds them, how they are developed and how they are used. 4 This particular algorithm was clearly biased in favour of private school students. The Scottish government used a similar algorithm to assign exam results, but quickly scrapped it and reverted to teacher assessments when it became apparent how unfair awarding grades in this way was. Fortunately, the UK Tory government has now been forced through public pressure to do the same.

As well as mass protests, legal action was threatened against England’s exam regulator Ofqual, the developers of the algorithm. Michael, one of the students due to take legal action (supported by The Good Law Project), went from predicted grades of BBB to EEE after moderation by the algorithm. 5 The students bringing the legal challenge were set to argue that they were unfairly judged based on the schools they attend. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, was also ready to issue a legal challenge.

The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) offered to help Ofqual with the algorithm back in April, offering to advise as external experts. However, Ofqual would only accept their help - if the statisticians signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that prevented them from commenting on the algorithm for five years. The RSS experts refused to sign an NDA so their services were never used. The RSS have now called for an investigation into the Ofqual algorithm. That these statistical experts believed that it was not up to scratch, fuels the calls for justice from students, parents and teachers.

In the midst of the backlash over their discriminatory algorithm, Ofqual suspended its appeal criteria, causing further upset and confusion to students. A statement on their website said only that their appeals policy was “being reviewed” by the Ofqual board. 6 Prior to its suspension, students were able to apply to have their mock exam results considered as the basis for an appeal. For an agonising period of time, it was unclear if students would be able to appeal their assigned grades.

The rigged algorithm was due to be used to grade 97% of GCSEs this coming Thursday.7 This would undoubtedly have led to more working class hopes being shattered at the expense of the privileged, private school-attending elite. This could not be allowed to stand. Many of us were prepared to fight to have this unfair, classist grading system scrapped and teacher assessments used instead. We were not going to allow this Tory cabinet of (mostly) private school-educated tossers, promoted above their abilities, to trash our kid’s hopes and dreams in this way.

The algorithm fiasco has laid bare the myth of the "meritocracy in education", it has shown that the system is stacked against working class people. Even without a rigged algorithm, the education system favours those with privilege over those without. The algorithm business has shown starkly in black and white that - poorer kids get worse exam results, they often don’t go to university, they rarely go to Oxbridge. The algorithm awarded grades on this basis. Longer term, we need to think about changing this whole unfair system. Perhaps teacher assessments are a better way to judge student’s abilities than a few high stakes exams, as argued by headteacher Gerry Robinson in the TES. 8

We know that the upper class have always thought that their class is entitled to rule, entitled to take their place at the top of the heap, and screw the rest of us. In education, this entitlement has been cloaked behind the mirage of a ‘meritocracy’; the idea that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. At least now the ‘elite’ have openly shown their disdain for our children’s prospects, in this shameless rigging of the system in their own favour via algorithm.

The U-turn has not come about because they realised the error of their ways, but because they faced a massive public backlash. This should encourage us: we can fight them and win, despite the rigged system. This is open class warfare and we must keep fighting back.

Congratulations, student protestors, on your important victory. Your chants still resonate.

"Boris Johnson’s a wanker!"

"Justice for the working class!"

1 https://tech.newstatesman.com/public-sector/how-the-a-level-results-algorithm-was-fatally-flawed

2 https://www.standard.co.uk/news/education/nus-president-a-level-system-racist-classist-ofqual-a4524031.html

3 https://www.tes.com/news/gcse-results-2020-grades-algorithm

4 The New Statesman goes into more detail about the flaws in this particular algorithm here: https://tech.newstatesman.com/public-sector/how-the-a-level-results-algorithm-was-fatally-flawed

5 https://www.itv.com/news/2020-08-16/students-taking-legal-action-against-ofqual-amid-a-level-results-anger

6 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/statement-on-our-earlier-announcement-15-august-2020

7 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/15/controversial-exams-algorithm-to-set-97-of-gcse-results#:~:text=According%20to%20analysis%20shared%20with,by%20the%20exam%20regulator%20Ofqual.

8 https://www.tes.com/news/what-if-teacher-grades-are-more-accurate-exams

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