UK government faces elitism row after algorithm downgrades pupils

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The U.K. government is facing a growing row over final-year school grades after thousands of pupils in England were downgraded by an algorithm. 

Schools, educational equality bodies and opposition politicians have called for the results to be annulled and accused Boris Johnson’s government of exacerbating inequalities within the country’s education system. 

The algorithm used by regulator Ofqual in place of final-year exams — which had to be canceled due to the coronavirus — downgraded nearly 40 percent of results compared to the grades provided by pupils’ teachers, leading some to miss out on university places or fail tests they never sat.

State schools in England say their students have been hit much harder than those at private institutions, which are attended by 7 percent of U.K. students. The algorithm graded pupils based in part on their school’s past performance. 

The focus on inequality is an awkward one for Johnson’s Conservative government, which targeted working-class voters in the 2019 general election and won over traditional Labour seats.

“Disproportionately you’ll find those smaller sizes in the independent sector. It’s primarily a size issue but there is a state vs. independent element in this” — James Kewin, deputy chief executive at the Sixth Form Colleges Association

Labour politicians have honed in on this aspect of the row. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham wrote on social media: “Tell me how this isn’t discrimination based on class?”

This week, the Scottish government scrapped its algorithm-based model after similar criticism. But U.K. Education Minister Gavin Williamson defended the model, saying that Ofqual consulted “widely” with schools and colleges before implementing it.

The new grading system meant that final-year students received results based on a mock exam or grades assessed by their teacher, rather than an end-of-year exam. Yet the algorithm, which was applied to classes with more than 15 pupils to counteract grade inflation, downgraded nearly 40 percent of teachers’ assessments. 

Ofqual says that its early analysis of the grades shows that pupils from “all backgrounds — including more disadvantaged and black, ethnic minority and Asian communities — have not been disadvantaged by this year’s awarding process.”

But that is not the perception among school staff.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive at the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said that one school received the worst set of results in 15 years, even though the algorithm is based on previous performance. 

He also highlighted that the algorithm assessment didn’t apply to subjects where a school had fewer than five pupils taking the class. This benefited private schools, he said, and hit state schools, particularly sixth form colleges — institutions where pupils aged 16 or older study for their final-year qualifications — which often have thousands of students.

“Disproportionately you’ll find those smaller sizes in the independent sector. It’s primarily a size issue but there is a state vs. independent element in this,” he said. 

Richard Ronksley, headteacher at a sixth form college in Rochdale, Greater Manchester — a borough with some of the most deprived parts of England — said that some 29 percent of grades at his school were revised down from the teachers’ assessment. 

“The data is really clear when you look at the differences between sixth forms and private schools. It’s a massive difference. I’m not saying it’s an intended consequence but you’re applying [the algorithm] to some schools but then not others,” he said. 

While it hasn’t stopped any of his pupils from going to university, he said that some have missed out on their university or course of choice because of the change.

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham was critical of the government’s approach | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“You’re left with these grades for the rest of your life. People are saying it’s not right to inflate the grades for a year. But you’ve already got grade inflation for a very privileged group of people already,” he said. 

“It hits all sections of society but like everything with this virus, the more socially deprived are the most disadvantaged.”

Government officials argue that the system already allows for some flexibility, as students can opt to use the results from their mock exams, which they took before schools closed over the pandemic, over the algorithm-based grades.

But this hasn’t stopped the barrage of criticism — and unpopular education policy in the U.K. can have huge ramifications for a party’s political fortunes. 

Next week, England’s 16-year-olds receive their GCSE results, and researchers predict that 2 million pupils could be downgraded.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s decision to back the tripling of university tuition fees with his Conservative coalition partners in 2010 is considered to have cost his party, the Liberal Democrats, significantly in the 2015 election.

And the issue is far from over. Next week, England’s 16-year-olds receive their GCSE results, and researchers predict that 2 million pupils could be downgraded.

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