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A Level Results Day: a ‘kick in the teeth’ for social mobility and educational equality

With almost 40% of A-Level results downgraded, Skye Fitzgerald McShane denounces an algorithm which she believes has both punished individuals and widened the educational gap.

A Level Results Day 2020 was never going to be straightforward. With schools closing their doors all the way back in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, for the first time there would be no exam results to decide people’s grades. Students across the UK waited anxiously for 5 months whilst the government supposedly formulated a system to ‘make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve for their academic career’ as promised. What they came up with is a classist algorithm that ignores the hard work and aspirations of disadvantaged students and continues to uphold the educational divide between those who are well off and those who are not.

The exact system used relies on simplistic notions of achievement to make a complex decision. Teachers were asked to submit predicted grades for their students alongside an overall rank of each student in their class. These results were then moderated by Ofqual (The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) according to multiple factors, prominently the historic performance of student’s schools. This moderation led to 39.1% of teacher predicted results being reduced by at least one grade. With a single grade often being the difference between a place on a course or not, this is a concerning enough figure. But the breakdown of who was most harshly affected by this moderation reveals an indefensible divide between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils. Students from wealthier areas were less likely than their disadvantaged counterparts to have their grades adjusted down from their teachers predictions: those from Ofqual’s lowest socioeconomic category had their proportion of C grades or above reduced by over 10%. The algorithm gave more credence to the predictions of subjects in schools with smaller class cohorts, which is a massive benefit for schools who can afford to operate in such a way – these schools are disproportionately private. There has been an overall increase in students achieving top grades as compared to last year, but this is lopsided: said increase for independent schools was more than double that of state comprehensives, and extortionately higher than that of colleges.

The overall result is that in a year where the imperative to work at home has already disproportionately impacted pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the education gap has been well and truly entrenched by A Level results that amplify disadvantage.

It stings because it is so obviously unfair. It is hard to see why the solution that makes the most sense, prioritising the predicted grades teachers were asked to come up with, has been ignored apart from for those most privileged students. The argument against using predicted grades alone, citing the ‘unprecedented increase in overall outcomes’ it would generate is simply unconvincing. It is not as though we don’t know this year’s results are going to be skewed, regardless of what system is used to decide them: this entire year has been unprecedented. Why can’t they be skewed in favour of students, who have done nothing wrong but be in Year 13 in 2020? Instead, the historic academic performance of schools has been used to moderate predicted grades. This means that the locality of the school that a pupil attends is a factor in their awarded grade – it is easy to understand why students feel as if their postcodes have defined them.

I am not claiming predicted grades are perfect in any way, of course. Working class students and students of colour are more likely than their counterparts to be underestimated by teacher predictions and this cannot be ignored. But an algorithm for moderation should aim to dispel this inequality, instead of the contrary system that has been used instead which seems to mean that a student’s school’s performance can have more impact on their results than their teacher’s prediction or their own prior grades. Teachers should have been trusted to know their student better than an algorithm. They are in a superior position to award specific, fairer grades based on personal achievement than a simplistic ranking system. However, the contrast in the acceptance of predictions seems to show those in power believe teachers from wealthier areas and private schools are more trustworthy than those from state schools. Either that, or they cannot fathom disadvantaged students succeeding past their circumstances.

Boris Johnson can claim all he wants about ‘robust’ and ‘dependable’ outcomes, but that doesn’t stop the fact many students have not received the grades they expected, worked for or deserved. The results may be ‘robust’ but they are not right, and they are not fair. With there being no exam to sit, this system has allowed for students’ postcodes and their family’s income to be more important than their hard work, and any integrity attached to these results is destroyed by this simple truth whose impact is felt most harshly by those most disadvantaged in this country.

The fairest action now would be to follow in the steps of Scotland and simply award everyone their predicted grades, but the damage has already been done for so many students original wishes for the future. Many have lost their original offers and have had to settle for second choices or clearing alternatives. The government’s hasty backtrack to pay for appeals for mock exam grades is important but too little too late. It is quite clear we cannot rely on them, so it is now the onus of universities, apprenticeships and employers to wade through this mess.

In Oxford, the example has been set by Worcester and several other colleges in admitting all or most of their UK offer holders, with a focus on those deemed most disadvantaged. Worcester Admissions Tutor Professor Laura Ashe referred to the decision as ‘the morally right thing to do’. Open letters, petitions and an #HonourtheOffer campaign are being signed and spread across the university community to call for all colleges to follow suit. The Oxford SU Class Act Campaign’s statement sums up the main argument clearly: ‘If the University of Oxford is to work actively to combat classism, the University and constituent colleges must all take decisive action to provide places to those disadvantaged students who have been denied the opportunity to take up a place they have already earned through undergoing Oxford’s rigorous application process.’ Whilst it is not feasible for every post-18 education or employment supplier to give every student their proposed place, they have a responsibility to recognise the injustice of these results and give students the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.

The fight to close the educational gap is incredibly important. As a proud state comprehensive student from a lower income background it is certainly a personal fight. Standing (socially distanced) outside my old school on Thursday as friends collected results, I felt and continue to feel so incredibly angry on behalf of them and of all students who wanted to do better than people’s expectations. They were betrayed. These results are a kick in the teeth for social mobility and educational justice, and a sad reflection of what happens when the higher echelons of power are dominated by those who only know privilege. A system reliant on historical performance simply entrenches historical inequality and the government needs to take a long hard look at what has happened here, especially as GCSE students face their own results day next week. No student should be defined by what school they go to or their socio-economic background, especially in such a strange and unwieldly time.

One of the Prime Minister’s favourite rallying cries has been his desire to ‘level up’ those parts of the country seen as ‘less than’; the poorer, working-class communities where unemployment is high while self-belief and aspirations are low. This A-level debacle is, as Andy Burnham stated: ‘the single biggest act of levelling down that this country has ever seen’. Boris and his band of mainly privileged white men should hang their heads in shame.

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