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A-Levels: The Story Of How A Disadvantaged Background Determines Your Future (According To The UK Government)

You are probably aware of the headlines on the front cover of every broadsheet and tabloid right now. Just kidding, I know nobody reads those anymore (paper being wasted everyday to publish stories we can just read on our phones? The environment thinks not). So instead, you are probably aware of all the stories blowing up on Twitter and Instagram right now. And no, I’m not talking about Covid-19. I’m referring to the fiasco that ensued following the Government’s decision to use an algorithm based on student’s schools to determine their A Level grades.

Yes, you read that correctly. Due to the current pandemic the world is facing, students in the UK were unable to sit their A Level exams. However they still required grades to confirm their places at offer-held universities. Enter the government with their use of Ofqual’s ‘accurate’ algorithm which took into account a school’s results from the previous three years across the whole cohort of students in order to ‘standardise’ results. This unsurprisingly saw the highest grades being awarded to students who attended private and independent schools, while those in state schools were left with low grades and the message that circumstance and wealth will always be a determinant of your future.

Eerily coincident is the award-winning short story written by Jessica Johnson, which imagined a society in which a biased algorithm awarded students ‘bands’ based on educational inequality. It is hard to believe such a tale could become a reality for students across England. Johnson herself has been a victim of Ofqual’s system, and initially lost her place at the University of St Andrews. Fortunately due to the government’s U-turn she may have the chance to have her offer restored.

Following the release of Ofqual’s grades to A Level students, many took to the streets of London to protest the injustice they had been dealt. Others posted online, relaying their devastation and complete lack of confidence in the British education system. After much political pressure from schools, colleges, students and institutions such as The Good Law Project (as well as conservative MPs) the government made a U-turn on their decision. This means that grades given by teachers will be used instead unless a higher grade was awarded by the algorithm.

Once again it appears that the UK has taken no heed of the warnings from others. Scotland were first to release their grades and were quick to realise their mistake and rectify it accordingly. The SNP education secretary John Swinney said the error made was ‘deeply regrettable’, yet England’s own education secretary Gavin Williamson, chose to ignore this. After seeing the outcry of rage from thousands he promised a ‘no U-turn, no change’ to the nation. And yet, barely 48 hours following this statement he returned with a tight-lipped apology and a new proposal in lieu of the algorithm-based grades.

However, despite grades increasing and students being judged more fairly on their academic abilities, the damage of Gavin Williamson and the Department of Education has been done. Places in top universities including Oxbridge have already been awarded to those who benefited from Ofqual’s algorithm, whilst those who had been initially downgraded are now left to rush for places on their desired courses. Although the government has removed the cap on student numbers at universities, there are now issues such as courses being oversubscribed and the ability of universities to facilitate this. Some universities, including Durham, are offering financial incentives for people who defer their entry to 2021. For those whose courses have reached full capacity there is no choice but to wait and reapply in the future. Additionally, procedural problems have arisen as UCAS and universities have still not been awarded access to the upgraded results.

Williamson has no choice but to bear the brunt of the injustices that continue as a result of his decisions. His department is now under intense scrutiny as they claimed to have only realised the issues with A Level results over the weekend following their release. This is being criticised as it has come to light that the department were warned four times in July and August of the problems that the algorithm would bring, including only a 75% accuracy rate.

This massive blunder highlights once again the UK government’s inability to listen to the advice and pleas of others, always at the expense of the more disadvantaged areas of the population. We are not yet out of the woods with the pandemic and its notable harrowing effect on the BAME community within the UK and still we have white men in politics asserting their opinion as the most important and correct. It is not difficult to see a correlation between the people in power and the treatment of citizens, with those from socially disadvantaged or BAME backgrounds always facing the worst fallout from their decisions. Let’s hope for a future and a country which takes ALL of its citizens into account.

 

Words By: Mariam Zara

Edited By: Laura Murphy