A-level results fiasco

Over the past week, I was becoming angrier by the day, as I read, learnt, and heard more about the A-level results fiasco, where an algorithm had downgraded many grades of A-level students, sometimes far below the predicted or mock-exam grades. The downgrading had the effect of further accentuating the social and structural inequalities in the country by disproportionately affecting those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Brilliant students who were offered a place at a ‘prestigious’ university, students who would have been the first in the family to attend university, students who were seeking to learn and improve their life chances were downgraded by the algorithm for their schools’ past performance. Students were missing out on their choices, and many were missing out on university education altogether.

‘Fiasco’ is the printable and tamest word that I can use. There is something uniquely rage-inducing about politicians messing up young people’s chances and futures in such a callous fashion. If I as someone who has no stake at all in A-levels this year can be so angry, I cannot imagine what anguish those who were meant to sit A-level this year had to go through. I really feel sorry and bad for them.

The U-turn was the right thing for the Governemnt to do, however this debacle has already caused havoc, emotionally and logistically, and it is going to place universities in the UK under severe administrative pressure. There will still be losers because of the confusion and complications arising from the initial results and the subsequent U-turn. Governments and politicians are often castigated unfairly with the benenfit of the hindsight, however in this case and especially with what had already happened in Scotland, I have to wonder if the failures could have been avoided or corrected sooner.

An algorithm is not and most probably cannot ever be value-free, neutral, or unbiased: it reflects and at times reinforces the assumptions and prejudices of its human creators. This is the reason why diversity is critically important for those involved in creating algorithms. A homogeneous group is likely to reinfoce its members’ commonly-held bias mutually and be blind to that fact even when they are cognizant of the possibility of their own bias. Surely this algorithm was tested on a sample or the results were analysed internally and alarm bells should have been ringing when there were significant disparities.

Given how important A-levels and other qualifications are for many people’s lives, this issue must have been high on the list of priorities for the Secretary of State for Education and indeed the whole Government. There seems to have been little political oversight or even curiosity about the process or the results. Initially the Government defended the algorithm and the results, it seems without knowing what they entailed, until the volte-face. While there was probably no malice, perhaps laziness, ignorance, or incompetence, or combination thereof made the Government put many young people through hell.

The Secretary of State for Education should acknowledge, admit, and apologize for his failure to oversee the process properly and for causing manifest injustice and unfairness, not measly and merely for the distress felt by those affected.