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Exams Algorithm Scandal Brutally Exposes the Sham of Conservative ‘Meritocracy’

With disadvantaged students disproportionately affected by the downgrading of ‘A’ Level results, Sam Bright explores the real algorithm which has been sorting pupils on the basis of background all along

Pupils from Eton College sit on the wall as they watch a game of “bully”, a field game devised and played at the college. Photo: Toby Melville/PA Archive/PA Images

Exams Algorithm Scandal Brutally Exposes the Sham of Conservative ‘Meritocracy’

With disadvantaged students disproportionately affected by the downgrading of ‘A’ Level results, Sam Bright explores the real algorithm which has been sorting pupils on the basis of background all along…

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“I think it’s very unfair because of past performance in this area, and particularly in my school, that I haven’t got in, and I know a lot of others. It’s just heartbreaking seeing my friends upset because they haven’t got in, because of previous results or to do with where you live or what school you go to. It just shouldn’t determine how you can do.”

Lilly Keeley Watts, whose ‘A’ Level grades were downgraded yesterday, meaning she didn’t get her place at Durham University.

The self-impressed security of adulthood immunises many people from the traumatic memories of being a student at exam time. A war between your brain, nerves and writing speed, in the space of just a few hours, shapes the course of your life.

The late nights cramming, parental nagging and occasional sobbing are all forgotten when you reach the stable plod of middle-age employment.

However, while every student year group has it hard, none have been lacerated like the class of 2020.

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Fretting about the possibility of grade inflation, if results were based on predicted grades alone, the Government coded an algorithm to ‘standardise’ the outcomes of kids across the country based on two central factors: the past performance of schools, and teachers’ assessments of their students.

The Conservatives believe in empowering the individual; they supposedly hate blunt, bureaucratic state instruments that treat everyone the same. Yet, the latter is exactly what the Government deployed to decide the ‘A’ Level results of thousand of young people this week.

The fiasco is simply an amplification of the insidious sorting process that sees the rich and privately-educated miraculously succeed every single year.

The grades of private school kids were boosted – a side-effect of their educational ascendancy for generations – while students from deprived areas were spiked. The algorithm cannibalised the veneer of fairness that coats the education system.

But that’s not all it did. The algorithm scandal exposed the fallacy of meritocracy that characterises education and attainment in the UK. In doing so, it laid bare the innate inequalities of the system, which are usually masked by the over-achievement of occasional underdogs.

The Making of Meritocracy

The entire concept of ‘standardisation’ suggests there is a standard – a social formula – that underwrites the performance of students. But, as the Government’s algorithm shows, this guiding formula is not unbridled meritocracy.

In his 2012 Conservative Party conference speech, Britain’s then Eton and Oxford-educated Prime Minister David Cameron remarked: “It’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going.”

This notion of meritocracy – the process by which people ‘succeed’ – hasn’t really changed since 1958, when it was first theorised by political scientist Michael Young (the lefty father of Toby) in his seminal text The Rise of Meritocracy. Young posits that meritocracy is itself based on a simple algorithm: IQ + Effort = Merit.

In other words: to achieve what you want to in life, all you need is hard work and talent; anyone can succeed, regardless of their background, if they simply have brains and grit.

However, this week’s exam results debacle – likely to be compounded next week by GCSE results – has finally taken a sledgehammer to this myth. The strong correlation between school performance, local deprivation and exam results, built into the Government’s standardisation formula, has revealed what lots of people already knew: that social background is a central force in the performance of students.

Essentially, the authoritarian algorithm created a hyper-exaggeration of a system that already exists, whereby kids from good schools and good homes generally go to good universities and a few of their peers from less advantaged backgrounds follow them. In usual circumstances, however, conservative-minded individuals can use the few disadvantaged people who make it out, so to speak, as evidence that anyone can make it.

As Akala, a leading black rapper and author, writes in his book Natives, in the context of race: “A few successful black people also do very little to alter the race-class dynamics of the UK, and can even help to cement it. These successes can and will be used… to beat other poor people that ‘didn’t make it’ over the head. They can be used to pretend that the system is just and there are enough seats at the table – ‘if you just work hard and pull your socks up you can be like me’ – rather than simply being honest about the way things actually work.”

This year, however, the exceptions – the teenagers who get the grades despite all their social and economic barriers to success – were forced to conform to the rule. Their grades were dragged down, because the algorithm judged, correctly, that people from their station typically under-perform.

Social Immobility

There is plenty of evidence that educational stratification relies heavily on social background; that people, more often than not, become the very thing that they come from.

The 2018 Access to Advantage report conducted by the Sutton Trust, which examines social mobility in Britain, has a few facts that are worth listing:

The Meritocracy

  • Over a three-year period, eight of the UK’s top schools received as many Oxbridge acceptances as 2,894 schools and colleges combined. The latter total represents three-quarters of UK schools and colleges.
  • Independent school students are seven times more likely to get places at Oxbridge than students from non-selective state schools, and more than twice as likely to go to a Russell Group university.
  • Roughly 1.5% of Oxbridge applicants from the South East, South West, London or East of England attend the famed institutions. You are approximately half as likely to go to Oxbridge if you’re a higher education applicant from the North or the Midlands.

The report unsurprisingly concludes that “in the UK, whether someone goes to university, and if so at which institution they study, is highly impacted by an individual’s socioeconomic background, the school they attended and where in the country they are from… Whether looking at Oxbridge, the Russell Group or top tariff institutions, our most highly regarded universities are not equally accessible to all young people in the country.”

While this year’s exam fiasco has been galling, it is simply an amplification of the insidious sorting process that sees the rich and privately-educated miraculously succeed every single year.

The Government’s algorithm is a horrific failure of public policy and one that should attract derision. But if the education system is to fundamentally change, to prevent students from endless trooping in the footsteps of their parents and peers, campaigners must look beyond this isolated failure.

Fairness in education relies on eroding the structural inequalities that line the boots of people who aren’t white, middle-class, southern, and/or privately-educated.

There has been an algorithm sorting children for centuries – it just wasn’t created by a computer.

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