A levels = Algorithm as Leveller: Why we need an Oath of Non-Harm, a new dance floor and not just a return to the same old inequality waltz by Peter Shukie
The A Level fiasco of 2020 appears at first to be a series of manoeuvres in which an algorithm provided naked evidence of university access being biased. A Levels – Advanced Levels – provide the educational borderland, the sifting space where young people get sorted in readiness for their university applications. In the period between school leaving (aged 16) and with two years of study, the grades of these Advanced Level qualifications decide which university a student attends. Each university and course sets its own standards – A* as the highest, and with conditions of entry based on the accumulation of as high a series of grades as possible. Oxford, Cambridge, Russell Group universities and courses in Medicine and Law tend to set the highest tariffs. Results day is an annual event in England and Wales as the populace focuses on who has achieved and who has not. This carnival dominates late August media coverage with a stampede by broadcast and print media to join in the furore. It all seems so natural, so common sense, although I had to add this description as I was reminded by an Italian colleague that such a system is not at all common, and is really rather ridiculous.
Ridiculous or not, this system is so well ingrained in the national psyche that we often miss the massive significance it has in maintaining social stratification. The scandal of 2020 was that we saw things anew, stripped of the usual acceptance of success being rewarded/ failure being discarded we saw that the system was loaded, biased, unfair and discriminatory. State schools were disadvantaged, private schools given priority, the better-off pupils finding easier access to the prestigious spaces of learning. As goes every other year – except this year, the sifting process of examinations did not even take place.
Within the algorithm, two key features decided how well a student did. First, the assessment of their abilities by their teachers. Second, the historical successes of the place in which they studied. In addition, prior grading on GCSEs were included, regardless of any development over this period in a person’s life. Both are removed from any individual sense of ability, potential, or agency beyond impressing someone or finding themselves in a place that impresses others. If any further proof were needed, we saw education as a system being rooted in classism. The fallacy of social mobility was thrust before our faces and we collectively roared in resistance.
The decision was reversed less than a week later and the algorithm was removed as the arbiter. The romantic narrative of education (Meyerhof, 2017) was returned to us and uniersities could begin again their Pygmalion processes. But not before the curtain had dropped and we all got to see the shaping processes of ideology and status-led social engineering. The square dance of establishing value, that each of our society’s young people are equal and have equal access to the nation’s resources, turned into a brawl. A levels, GCSEs, and then later the degrees and postgraduate study they give access to, provide the artifice of meritocracy that allow a continued sifting of who accesses these resources. This well-established dance is one we are all aware of. We have learned these moves since the age of four, beginning the minute we were dropped off at the school gates. We all know the moves, who does what, who goes where, and when.
Without A levels, decisions were made that disadvantaged lots of people that thought they were advantaged. The music had changed and this new tune was unfamiliar and ugly. Many educators work in situations and have experience of these sifting processes and how one accent/ background/ class dominates the better resourced places of learning. Examinations allowed us to think that being in less well resourced, less prestigious spaces, was our own fault. It was our own lack of ability, our families lack of support and care, our school’s low ambition, the communities focus being elsewhere (down a pit, serving shops, weaving cotton, at the foodbank) that kept us away. In 2020, we got to see that we do not even need exams to do this. And it was at this level of exposure, at this annual carnival of ‘Hell day’ (Bailey & Shukie, 2020), that we got to see how social stratification works and how it has been updated for a technological age. Virginia Eubanks (2017) described the use of algorithms and deep data sets as a process of Automating Inequality and profiling, policing and punishing the poor (Eubanks, 2017).
The U-Turn pacified the revolt and subsequent apologies from government made clear the importance of the romantic notion of social mobility through education. This narrative remains crucial while transparently untrue. The poor remain unrepresented and the working class continues to be defined as the deficit space from which to escape. Middle class aspiration drives the system and shapes the sifting processes to their advantage. This was reversal of policy that maintained advantage to the advantaged and not one that widened access to the perpetually dispossessed. There will be no U-turn on policies that keep poor working-class communities away from accessing the rich resources that universities and subsequent professions offer. Noting the delay in the BTEC examination grades and the lack of attention given to that, anywhere, by anyone, may help those not convinced of the class-base to all this. We might find ease of recognition in a three-class system, upper, middle and working class and ignore concepts of race and hierarchies in citizenship status.
The principles of meritocracy justify this whole process as education as transformation while masking that in reality it is not what you know or can do, but where you come from that makes the difference. We are encouraged to find solace in Diane Reay (2018) and others like her, that found a route out from what can only be the misery of a working class existence. Reay described feeling she ‘had been lucky, a chosen escapee’ (Reay, 2018. p.13) and the whole A Level charade remains rooted in this escape and salvation narrative
Plato’s (Robertson Rusk, 1957) three social tiers of gold, silver and brass are largely uncontroversial even now. The splitting of inherent, never-to-be-altered status markers means that we are born into a class and regardless of the odd escapee, those classes remain. For Plato and his current-day classical acolytes, Gold and Silver add the glitter of wealth to the top two classes of governors and professionals. The working class, the ‘brass’, have endured millenia of policies that see that we,
‘have no place in the government of the state; their characteristic virtue is obedience…to know their place and to keep it’. (Robertson Rusk, 1957, p.12)
Even through escaping, social inequality is not challenged. Eliot-Major and Machin (2018) identified that aspirational parents of all classes, who they label as ‘tiger mums and tiger dads’ (Eliot-Major & Machin, 2018. p.83) have flexed their muscles and won the battle. Not because the ‘knowing your place’ Platonic model is not a good system in their eyes, it just missed them initially and they are here now to claim their rightful place alongside the elite. Their tigerish fervour was not about social equality bit individual attainment for their children. Together they proved a formidable force, but a force for individualism and the continuation and justification of a sifting process, rather than for social change. The media already represents this as a short story format of despair, unfairness, challenge, revolt and an ultimate overcoming of injustice. A short-story, where everyone smiles at the end. George Bernard Shaw breathes life into Pygmalion once again and takes to the dance floor. The chosen ones begin the grand ascent, the transformation, the university experience. Plato may have been write about the inherent worth of each of us, they seem to say, but Pygmalion provides us with a story where we can still find nuggets of gold amongst the muck and the brass. It was never about that anyway, the disadvantaged and disallowed where never the point here even while they proved useful in establishing a justification beyond pure selfish, individualistic greed. This was always about the silver and gold exchanging glances. The brass remained outside – no longer serving/ servicing in the pandemic era, so with no place here at all.
While the music returned to a steady tempo, the order of things returned to a gentle swaying series of steps, this remains an education system as far from true social mobility as it has ever been. The whole dance floor is slanted dramatically, and the entrance barred to most. The sorry debacle has thrust A Level/ Hell Day even further up the news agenda. Even more than most years, amidst the mayhem and misery, it has served to reinforce the very unfairness of the flawed system we are still led to believe is the best we can get. Universities who only weeks ago were threatened with severe reduction and precarious futures find themselves reinvigorated with clamouring hordes beating at their doors to access the continually re-imagined university experience. We once again placed Higher Education as a pinnacle of achievement for young lives, highlighted it being a place and space solely for ‘successful’ 18 year olds, reasserted that A Levels are the only marker of success and solidified the necessity and value of the university. Look at the desperate tears, how can the university not be worthwhile with such a desire to get in?
Maybe we will look back and see this as the greatest marketing campaign of the COVID era. From wild concerns of empty campuses and empty coffers, U.K. universities now find themselves beating back applicants, courses over-filled and Chancellors proclaiming their heartfelt commitment to meet the demands of the populace. So lucrative is the whole charade that some universities will pay students not to come this year, to take a gap year, to return when the dust settles (Weale, S & Adams, R, 2020). Not only is the threat of any ‘new normal’ quashed, the threatened monolithic educators are back, and stronger than ever.
Twelve months ago, in an interview around establishing new routes to education that were not based around uniform ages, routes to entry and dominated by the usual suspects. I described A Level results day as ‘Hell Day’ (Bailey & Shukie, 2020) and it seemed a risky sentiment even then, given the significance it has for almost everyone involved in education in the U.K.. These celebration events are the stage in the year when academics, teachers, parents and the students themselves make the front pages of local and national newspapers, regional and national broadcasters. Social media explodes in pictures of smiling faces, envelope openings, selfies with documents held aloft like Champions League trophies. College marketing teams have giant helium filled A-shaped balloons in silver or gold as permanent inclusions on their expense accounts. This is their time, and the effervescent fanning of adolescent smiles, family hugs, leaping high above the College sign while photographers capture these annual expressions of joy is what they seem to love the most. Single letter posts dominate Facebook and Twitter, the greater the numerical indicator the better: As great, A* better, and clock up the 2, 3, 4, maybe even the 5 A* genius level score and all will bow down and await the glory each will deliver.
University admissions teams are poised to receive the great and the good, welcoming arms for those for whom the future is a promise, not a threat. The gift that keeps on giving as we hear which universities have the strongest claims on the nation’s talent. One university wants ABB, another AAA, what is this? A* across the board only? Must be Oxbridge that one. The whole carnival allows access to what generally remains hidden and mysterious, that academic landscape that impinges so little on the national psyche. Not today, today it is glorious, the reason for living and the only way any meaningful teenage life can be measured. Today, briefly, amidst aromatic fog the golden gates of the academy creak open and we glimpse the best of us as they ascend into lives of beauty and purpose. Not only do we get to celebrate the bright few that ascend from amongst us, we get to see the system working in all its glorious and wondrous beauty.
Like the annual engagement with horseracing the Grand National brings, the nation finds itself immersed in a fleeting rumination of these specialised academic codes and markers. Families encouraged to see if they have a runner in this year’s field, no matter how distant. Owners and runners are overjoyed and celebrated like the heroes they are. Energised smiles and leaps, gigantic alphabetic balloons and frantic marketing managers gathering temporary stars into increasingly tight selections of success, ushered to the photographers and press in branded winners’ enclosures. This is no time to trouble ourselves with the subjects of study – they are read out as list of course, just be sure to avoid media studies or anything else that they don’t do at Oxford, and ensure they sound established. Nobody will ask anymore about them. This seems little about the content or the creation on the two years of study and much more about the generation of lottery tickets, Willy Wonka golden tickets to another, brighter future.
All well and good, the carnival of selection continues for generations and for many this seems to represent progress and fairness, social mobility and the long-awaited meritocracy. Bright young subjects across the land, from every community, can see their greatest hopes ascend the steps to opportunity, a more brilliant what-is-to-come that justifies all previous struggles. Their go the hopes of us all, where we rub shoulders with our betters and establish our own place in that precious space.
And then, the computer says no.
It doesn’t say no to everyone of course, it says no to certain sections of society. Those sections that might well believe they belong but really, they do not. The computer, or more appropriately the human designed algorithm, sifts those it can see are not really the right stuff. The carnival goes on, but this time there is anger amidst the helium. The curtain has slipped and we see the murky underbelly of a system that was never really about a meritocracy. Appeals are planned and corrections sought, arguments abound that the algorithm needs fixing because it is patently inaccurate. The truth may be closer than we wish it to be, that the algorithm is perfect for the purposes for which it was designed. It is doing the socially engineered sifting that its creators envisaged, the factors and the locations it sought were imbued with the logic of a class-based education system. An immediate identification of the social stratification at play generated much of the furore over unfairness and bias. There can be no escape from the reality of a situation in which,
‘Ofqual’s own figures showed that pupils at independent schools received double the improvement in A* and A grades compared with those attending state comprehensives, while sixth-form colleges received only a tiny improvement.’ (Adams, R., Weale, S. & Barr, C., 2020).
An algorithm is simply a series of calculations that make possible the system that its creators consider preferable. In that way, the whole of the education system is a gigantic algorithm of many moving parts, complex ongoing calculations, and facilitated by computers of human and technological formation. The types of subjects selected, the decision over what is ‘good’ or ‘not good’ as an answer is not neutral nor objective. This is not multiple-choice democracy or an essay on social justice, it is biased as a model of compliance and agreement with the norm. If your whole social and cultural background begins close to that norm, the advantages are already stacked in your favour every bit as much as the disadvantages are piled up the further from that norm you are. This algorithm is archaic, and we built an entire education system around it.
Hell Day remains a justified reflection of a date in a calendar that celebrates an unequal system and helps perpetuate it. Despite the weaknesses of this system as a socially just model, the dominance of these landmark events on the educational calendar ignore the challenges. Perpetuating inequality based on a weak academic justification of three hour exams to measure two years of study is the ultimate result. These are festivals of forgetting every bit as much they are carnivals of celebration. We forget that exams measure a narrow band of intelligences and skills, we forget that the ‘education system remains tilted in countless ways to the already advantaged’ (Eliot Major & Machin, 2018. p.112).
We literally are still forgetting the BTEC students, still stood amidst the deflated balloons as their grades are delayed. No, Ministers, television cameras or armies of parents have shone the light of outrage in their direction. We forget that it is not all about brilliance and that these results always rely on the processes of revision and study, of comfortable homes with space and facilities for academic work, supportive home cultures that recognise academic achievement and a view of schools/ colleges as places of opportunity rather than spaces of surveillance and control. We forget this, so we do not need to do anything about those outside these spaces.
These inherent issues have not been threatened at all, and amidst all the anger and the still-boxed confetti is the need to reflect on three central factors.
- Exams are an archaic process of evaluation that continue because they serve the current (and archaic) style of a segregating education system we have created. NOT because they are valuable means of establishing talent, skill, potential or intelligence. This is not a common sense measure and it dominates in the U.K because it represents a preferred means of granting access to resources. Such access is rooted in class and privilege, exams help skew this in favour of wealth BUT they are not an effective means of measuring talent or ability.
- That education remains a romantic class-bound process and one that seeks the salvation of a few and the justification for the forgetting of the many. There are no golden inflatable B and C balloons, let alone D or E, while Pass, Merit or Distinction from vocational qualifications do not warrant any annual festival. This carnival is not all-inclusive and selection is always the purpose, regardless of the complications of algorithmic stratification.
- The process of selection by algorithm is a development of an existing, and growing, digitalisation of social stratification. We might use this opportunity to see how such processes are already well-established in furthering the disadvantages of the poorest of society. We might lend a sense of outrage about this single issue of exam results to the correcting of these travesties too.
The first two of these points are interlinked. The examination processes reflect an ancient stupidity that is enshrined by new technology. That algorithmic incompetence that created the furore cannot mask that exams in themselves are a clumsy, inaccurate model of assessment. They work for the system as it stands and we might have hoped that removing them, as we have done in 2020, might spark a new way of thinking about education. Instead, we are left clamouring for their return. The rationale for this clamour is the desire to do well and achieve on individual levels. A Strictly Come Dancing element to our moves is established where we trust the assessment of others and fall or rise based on these one-off, standardised measurements/ measurers. The collapse of the processes might have sparked a revolution in thinking as the old system collapsed, exams disappeared, and we faced a future we could build again. Before we had chance to think of these in any depth, it seemed over. Like the imagined terrified face of a ballroom judge thrust amongst a wild, ecstatic rave, any new reality was too much to contemplate and the clamour was to get back to where we were before. Around the edges and in the shadows, those in the BTEC categories never getting to dance at all, and nobody seeming to mind all that much. We seemed to lack dreams, or at least we lacked dreamers and visionaries in places of power and influence to walk these new paths.
The Romantic narrative of education
Eli Meyerhof (2017) asks why we do not snap at these junctures, responding collectively to the clearly unfair, biased and destructive forces of education as social stratifier. The response Meyerhof identifies is that we have become entranced by ‘romanticised views of Higher Education’ (p. 201). Such a position sees the academy as beyond question and the embodiment of, ‘an ideal…in crisis and in need of defence’ (ibid.). Not only must we identify the value of examinations and the system they reflect, we must join in the defence of this system if we are real and true educators and defenders of the ideal of which we are part. Blinded by a romantic vision we become part of an ‘epistemology of educated ignorance’ (p.199) that simultaneously thwarts efforts to find meaningful alternatives and promotes adherence to the efforts to defend the machinery of institutional education.
What led the challenge to the algorithm? What shook the system in the summer of 2020, was the threat to the Romantic vision of education as a means of meritocracy, the great leveller, the engine of social mobility. If the Hollywood William Wallace from the movie Braveheart was here, he might have hollered ‘they can take our grades, but they can never take our freedom’. What the whole debacle, from algorithm to U-Turn, demonstrated was that freedom was never part of this deal. Compliance and obedience lies at the heart of this system and rewards for grades and attendance, being well-behaved, one of the good must be maintained. Forget the precarity of Higher Education, of a crumbling economy and classism rife in selection. The epistemology of an educated ignorance requires a narrowing of what we learn and how we measure. This system may well be unfair, but it generates and maintains the structures of power that shape it. The amplification of inequality through technology was part of Toyoma’s (2011) concern that technology served mostly to amplify inequality, not correct or level out unfairness (p.75). Reliance on the machinery, processes and enshrined biases of the powerful would hardly be a space in which to place hopes of neutrality and fairness.
Toward an ‘Oath of Non-Harm’
Eubanks (2017) highlighted the ways that technology increasingly automates inequality, how it ‘profiles, polices and punishes the poor’ (Eubank, 2017). Eubanks research provides multiple case studies with evidence of a systematic creation of algorithmic bias that prioritises support for the wealthy, and admonishment of the poor. One of her early contributors warns us to watch what is happening to her, a single mother on welfare, her spending monitored by case workers, her life choices decided by algorithms, as we ‘will be next’. Sadly, such a warning seems likely to fall into our festival of forgetting moment amidst the carnival of success that followed the rejection of the algorithm. We might reflect more deeply on Eubanks’ Oath of Non-Harm for an Age of Big Data (The full Oath is included below). Every one of the ten points to this oath would have helped mitigate the concerns of the last weeks, and those left ahead of us. The final one speaks directly to us as educators, that ‘I will remember that the technologies I design are not aimed at data points, probabilities, or patterns, but at human beings’. While millions ranted at a government algorithm, we might reflect on the part we each play in establishing equality. The challenge now is to continue the system now we have seen that it is fundamentally creating inequality. Or do we celebrate again now the U-Turn has been enacted and forget all that were left behind?
The calling out of this structural discrimination is not going to make many friends, despite the rhetoric of social mobility. The romance that Meyerhof describes is not soft-lit and beautiful. It is viciously asserted and defended. We cannot ignore that Higher Education is big business, massive investments in accommodation, buildings, cities re-designed for the student market. The romantic narrative is the advertisement we get to consume and fight to defend. Behind it, the mechanics of corporate business are hard-edged and rooted in the language of profit and loss.
What we might do practically to respond to the destruction of a narrowing and complex system of segregation includes individual and collective actions. These might include: Supporting systems of free-labour but expensive-to-access publishing; continued adaption to increasing models of debt-fuelled education used to subsidise wealthier, self-funded students; Continued reliance of exam-based entry to courses rather than alternate models of engagement; perpetuation of a romantic notion of the purposes of education through narratives of success/ achievement; Maintaining ignorance of class-based assumptions and resources, practices and cultures within Higher Education; Utilising resources/ thinkers/ ideas/ practices from within universities and The Academy rather than seeking beyond these reified spaces.
Just how ‘lucky’ Diane Reay’s salvation as ‘a chosen escapee’ forms part of her reflection on leaving working-class habitus and the long haul to Cambridge professor. This gilded flight is surely what it is all about, a glowing endorsement for the transformative power of The Academy in British terms. What might stop us in our tracks though, is Diane Reay’s reflection that,
‘many years later when I tried to develop a socio- analysis of my own trajectory, I realised I had fought for every educational advance. My educational experiences were pitiless and harrowing.’ (Reay, 2018. p.13)
The system it turns out is not a fair and happy place and our dancing might be made all the harder by being working class. By maintaining an escape-hatch culture of education, a romantic vision of transformation and success down the line, we might save ourselves, if not others– but to what end? As Reay concludes:
There is a terrible consequence in this silencing of those of us growing up working class. It is no longer terrible for me, but for the people I left behind, the still-working classes. I may have found a voice but no one with the power and resources to effect change is listening to it. (Reay, 2018. p.22).
We have the opportunity to move beyond educated ignorance and challenge a U.K. education system that does not listen. While making things even harder for ourselves as working class academics, at least we might understand we are beginning a meaningful change to a system that is built to segregate and deny as much as it is designed to include and transform.
Oath of Non-Harm for an Age of Big Data
- I swear to fulfil, to the best of my ability, the following covenant:
- I will respect all people for their integrity and wisdom, understanding they are experts in their own lives, and will gladly share with them all the benefits of my knowledge.
- I will use my skills and resources to create bridges for human potential, not bridges. I will create tools that remove obstacles between resources and the people who need them.
- I will not use my technical knowledge to compound the disadvantage created by historic patterns of racism, classism, able-ism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, religious intolerance, and other forms of oppression.
- I will design with history in mind. To ignore a four-century-long pattern of punishing the poor is to be complicit in the “unintended” but terribly predictable consequences that arise when equity and good intentions are assumed as initial conditions.
- I will integrate systems for the needs of people, not data. I will choose system integration as a mechanism to attain human needs, not to facilitate ubiquitous surveillance.
- I will not collect data for data’s sake, nor keep it just because I can.
- When informed consent and design convenience come into conflict, informed consent will always prevail.
- I will design no data-based system that overturns an established legal right of the poor.
- I will remember that the technologies I design are not aimed at data points, probabilities, or patterns, but at human beings.”
(Extract from: Eubanks, V. (2017). Automating Inequality: how high tech tools profile, police and punish the poor. New York: St Martin’s Press.)
Adams, R., Weale, S. & Barr, C. (13th August, 2020). A-level results: almost 40% of teacher assessments in England downgraded. Article in Guardian Online, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/13/almost-40-of-english-students-have-a-level-results-downgraded. Date of last access: 16th August 2020.
Bailey, S. & Shukie, P. (April 20, 2020). Connecting Learning with Purpose. VocEd Tech Podcast, #192, retrieved from https://theedtechpodcast.com/dr-peter-shukie-on-connecting-learning-with-purpose/. Date of last access: 16th August 2020.
Eubanks, V. (2017). Automating Inequality: how high tech tools profile, police and punish the poor. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Hazel, W. (July 9, 2020). Gavin Williamson is tearing up the target of 50% of people going to university. Article retrieved from https://inews.co.uk/news/analysis/analysis-government-tearing-up-target-people-going-to-university-514762. Date of last access 14th August 2020.
Elliot Major, L. & Machin, S. (2018). Social Mobility and its Enemies. London: Pelican.
Meyerhof, E. (2017). Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Reay, D. (2018). A Life Lived in Class: The Legacy of Resistance and the Enduring Power of Reproduction. Prism Journal, Vol.2:1.
Robertson-Rusk, R. (1957). The Doctrines of the Great Educators. London: Macmillan & Co.
Toyama, K. (2011). Technology as Amplifier in International Development. Proceedings of the 2011 I-Conference, (pp. 75-82). Seattle, WA.
Weale, S. & Adams, R. (August 19, 2020). Durham University offers students money to defer entry. Article retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/19/durham-university-offers-students-money-to-defer-entry