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 sli