Pick of the Political Pops: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Teach Your Children”

A relatively short Political Pops this week because whilst we have sort of worked out how this happened we cannot fathom why. So no students sat A-Level exams this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact that schools were closed. Firstly reflect on that – the schools were closed (or only open to a small minority of students whose parents were key workers). So the schools were, largely, empty. A perfect place then for responsibly distanced written examinations to take place then? Apparently not. No – examinations had to be cancelled and a method found to award grades to students which reflected what they would have got.

So Ofqual – the qualifications watchdog – decided to use an ‘algorithm’ (a mathematical formula) based on teacher assessments and a schools ranking of each pupil within that school and within the predicted grade group. This was Ofqual’s baby and therefore Ofqual’s fault and not the governments (we know this because the government told us so and also that Gavin Williamson, whose job it is to oversee this stuff, should absolutely not take any blame, the poor wee scone). Add into this formula the school’s performance in previous years and the basis for the algorithm is set. Sound reasonable? Er…sort of, we guess.

In reality what happened was that the famous algorithm simply didn’t work fairly. In The Guardian (15/08/2020) Alex Hearn explained it this way:

“It wouldn’t be out of place in a maths A-level: suppose a class of 27 pupils is predicted to achieve 2.3% A* grades and 2.3% U grades; how many pupils should be given each grade? Show your working.

There are a few ways you could solve the problem. Each of the 27 pupils is 3.7% of the class, so maybe you give no one an A* or a U at all. After all, your class was effectively predicted to get less than one of each of those grades, and the only number of pupils less than one is zero.

Or you go the other way: 2.3% is more than “half” a pupil in that class, after all, and everyone knows you should round up in that case. So perhaps you should give one A* and one U.

Or you could pick the system that the exam regulator applied to calculate results on Thursday – now decried as shockingly unfair – and declare that no one should get the A* but someone should still get the U. U means unclassified, or in lay terms, a fail.

And not merely should they get a U, under the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation system – but they must get a U, even if their teacher recommended a much higher grade, and even if the system predicted that less than one pupil at that school would get a U according to the algorithm.

That choice, forcing grades down across the board, was at the heart of much of the dismay felt across England on Thursday. It meant that if Ofqual’s mysterious algorithm predicted any chance at all of a U grade in a class – even if its prediction was less than one single pupil getting that grade – then one pupil had to be given that grade, no matter how well they had performed up until that point.

The unfairness was exactly flipped at the other end of the scale: no matter how good a pupil you were, you could only achieve an A* if the Ofqual algorithm had predicted that at least one pupil would get that grade.

A class predicted just less than one A* and just more than zero U grades would be given zero A*s and one U.”

Add to that these facts: students from state schools (less funding, larger class sizes) were more likely to have their marks downgraded whilst those from private schools (selective, better funded, historically better performing because of this) were largely unaffected. Even if you were a high achieving student at a lower-performing school you had little chance of that being reflected in your grades.

This was a shockingly unfair system. And bear in mind that England, Wales and Northern Ireland had already had the chance to see what would happen because Scotland had used the system, found it wanting and scrapped it. Utter incompetence.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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