Done dirty by data | Deep Dive

What a whirlwind in the world of education these past couple of weeks have been!

Firstly, 40% of A Level students were downgraded across the country. This happened after an algorithm was devised that, on the whole, favoured pupils from more affluent areas. It used the results of their predecessors to predict how they may have performed this year. Students were left aghast at what this meant for their futures, with many either picking up insurance places at University or missing the cut-off entirely.

Disclaimer: stock image of students; taken pre-pandemic and not at the recent protests.

Rewind five years, and I remember waking up early, logging onto UCAS and nervously waiting for my place at the University of Birmingham to be confirmed. I may have been a wreck but, once my place transformed from conditional to unconditional, I breathed the biggest sigh of relief.

I cannot imagine the sheer amount of stress that A-Level students must have felt last week, when they found not only that their University places had been lost, but that their centre assessed grades had often drastically changed, through no fault of their own – despite an earlier promise by the sitting government that students would get the grades that they deserved.

An abandoned algorithm

Protests followed. Students marched on Westminster to demonstrate their disgust. Others burned their results. Then, in a sudden U-turn, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson apologised for the mess and promised pupils that their centre-assessed grades would be used for those whose results had been downgraded.

I am overwhelmingly happy with this decision. I was disgusted by the decision to use an algorithm to predict the future of thousands of children. Had I been born five years later, I would have been in the same position as the so-called ‘generation COVID’.

Though this is the best solution, it does raise more questions. Will Universities now be oversubscribed? How can campuses guarantee student safety if they’re busier than ever? In my Final Year of University, I wrote a piece dispelling the myth that there were not enough study spaces on campus; will that myth finally turn into a reality?

We can’t forget about the students who were rejected from their firm choice University and accepted by their insurance. What are their rights? Will they be able to go to their first choice now? What about the inevitable decisions about accommodation that must have been made by now? Have some students signed up to 12 months of rent? Can they be released from their contracts?

So many questions and, at the moment, very few answers. At least for now, I can confidently say that the right decision has been made for students.

Knock-on effects

For teachers, I fear that the government’s doubt on our effectiveness has been brought into the open. By choosing to trust an algorithm, rather than centre-assessed grades, the assertion that teachers’ predictions cannot be trusted was made clear.

Are we not employed by schools to be experts in our profession? To predict where students ought to be, to differentiate our lessons to help them make the necessary progress and celebrate when they achieve what they deserve?

Sure, issues with the ways in which we assess pupils throughout the year may come to light as the pandemic continues to develop, but it cannot be disputed that nobody knows a child’s progress in education better than a teacher.

I think that the government lacks faith in us because of a systemic problem with career politicians taking up secretarial roles. Had Williamson come from the profession as a headteacher, with 30 years of experience, this mess may have been avoided. The same argument can be said for health secretaries and others; is an experienced doctor or nurse not better qualified to make decisions for hospitals than a member of a political party?

This year has hit a lot of people, in many roles, with a lot of difficulties. The most we can hope to do in the year ahead, as teachers, is to rise to meet these challenges as best we can. Support our students, help them make progress, and be the best teachers that we can.

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