Algorithm Aftermath: Shattered A-Levels, Inflated GCSEs & University Chaos

By Sam Tilley

The Role of Gavin Williamson

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many areas of life since bursting onto the international scene at the turn of the year. Executives across the spheres of sport, theatre and travel have all been left with various headaches by the restrictions imposed on us by COVID-19; but perhaps no-one was left with a greater migraine than the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson.

Before we get bogged down into what exactly happened in those weeks in August, I feel it’s important to note that it is not entirely Williamson’s fault. If we were talking about the exam results being distributed in Milton Keynes, or Bolton, or Exeter then that is indeed the remit of the UK Government. However, education is a notably devolved issue, so when discussing whether Gavin Williamson should still be in a job, it feels rather partisan and uninformed not to ask the same question of Kirsty Williams, John Swinney or Peter Weir.

Enter, the algorithm

As with all good stories, we should start at the beginning. Shortly after schools and further education colleges were ordered to shut their doors, the Government realised that holding exams in their traditional form was unfeasible. With the announcement that all GCSE and A-level exams were not taking place, how grades would be decided became one of the most urgent questions being asked of the UK’s various Education Ministers. What they decided upon has now taken on an almost-mythic status; ‘The Algorithm’.

Fundamentally, ‘The Algorithm’ was the Governments’ way of ensuring that overzealous teachers would not overpredict students’ grades, which would unfairly benefit the 2020 cohort. Perhaps not entirely unfairly, the ministers believed that predicted grades would be higher than in previous years, and therefore also asked schools and colleges to rank students. The Algorithm took the Centre Assessed Grade (CAG, a more official way of saying predicted grade) but, crucially, disregarded it in favour of the ranking of students and the grade distribution from test centres from previous years. It quickly became apparent that these two combined factors had caused the vast majority of injustices.

For example, if your test centre ranked you last in a subject, you would pretty much receive the same grade as the lowest scoring person at your test centre from previous years. This opened up a whole host of potential issues, not least because if the 2020 cohort of students at a test centre were academically superior to previous years, this would not be reflected in the grades they would have achieved. As a result, schools and colleges in traditionally poor-performing areas of the UK were amongst the worst affected by the new system.

Students who were in line to be their school’s first entrant to the prestigious Oxbridge universities suddenly found themselves without a future; relegated to grades there were perhaps more in line with what ‘The Algorithm’ expected them to achieve. As such, the system elected to replace exams was, on the whole, a computerised system with little to no consideration of the personal circumstances of individual students.

A classist system

The BBC journalist Lewis Goodall spent much of that uncertain week interviewing the students that had been most affected by the computerised system; high performing individuals in poorer-performing schools. Some of the most affected students came from further education colleges, traditionally located in poorer areas and, with a higher pupil-per-class ratio than traditional schools, easily the sector most disadvantaged by ‘The Algorithm’. Compare this with the 4.8% increase in A*/A grades seen at private schools, where traditionally there are fewer pupils-per-class, and you can begin to see just how accidentally classist the system became. One such student was David, who was hoping to be the first of his family to go to university. Predicted A*AA, Goodall wrote that he was an especially good performer in maths. Devastatingly, however, David was downgraded because no one at his further education college had ever scored an A*/A in maths. 


Having heard all of this, you would expect at least one person in the four governments within the United Kingdom to have picked this up. Alas, as the SNP found out, the first real indicator that this would be a major misstep was the publication of the Scottish Higher grades on August 6. It is difficult to understate the anger from students, parents and teachers as a quarter of all grades were downgraded. Less than a week later, the first U-turn took place, with Scottish Education Minister John Swinney bowing to increasing public pressure to restore teacher’s predicted grades instead of the algorithm grades. A commentator sympathetic to the aims of the SNP would suggest he did so as it was the right thing to do; a more cynical outlook would point to the parliamentary numbers being in favour of a successful vote of no confidence in Swinney if he stood his ground. Regardless of why there was a U-turn, the fact that there was one set a precedent that the other three constituent parts of the UK would eventually follow.

A U-Turn

It is not necessary to recap the events of August 13 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, nor do I need to explain why the governments of Johnson, Drakeford and Foster decided to follow the Scottish retreat. What has not been mentioned enough, however, is the implications the universal U-turn would have on our higher education system. The clearing and adjustment process swiftly filled the places lost at universities by those students affected by the original issued grades. During the one year that they would have been looking to reduce student numbers on campus, universities became stuck between between turning down now-successful candidates, or oversubscribing courses (and crucially accommodation). So far, universities have generally honoured all original offers. All we can do is wait and see what impact that decision will have on the quality of teaching at an undergraduate level.

So, who’s to blame?

Returning briefly to the man at the centre of this maelstrom; the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. His initial refusal to allow students to have their predicted grades, and the admittedly ham-fisted attempts to defend an obviously-flawed system, resulted in a number of national politicians and parties to call for his resignation. Somewhat amusingly, this included the Liberal Democrats – seemingly unaware that the Welsh Education Minister is herself a Lib Dem. Perhaps Williamson did offer to resign as reported by The Independent, or perhaps he remained steadfast and stood his ground. In my opinion, it would be unfair to call on Williamson’s sacking without also calling for the resignation of the other three devolved education ministers. All four agreed on the same system and, on the whole, all four defended it resolutely until it became politically untenable.

What is unforgivable however, is how slow the UK Government was to react. The mental health and futures of thousands of teenagers came under immense strain without clear and obvious direction from the Department of Education (guidance was issued, then withdrawn, then reissued). If Williamson was indeed going to resign, and there is no indication that he will, it should be because he oversaw an absolute catastrophe of a response from the Department of Education and appears to have lost whatever grip he had on his portfolio. Our first thoughts should not be laying the blame at any one person’s door, it should be supporting those most affected by this saga: the teachers, the universities and most of all, our students.