The debacle that saw tens of thousands of young school-leavers having their A-level results downgraded by an algorithm and missing out on their first choice university illustrates what can go wrong when ministers try to offload responsibility for important policy decisions on government agencies. It also puts into sharp focus how badly it can backfire when the resulting policies go awry.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the decision to use an algorithm to award exam results during the pandemic. It is well known, by now, that Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, fetishises “the data” and has more than a passing penchant for mathematical modelling. But there is something strange about the fact that a Conservative government would so readily seek to place the life chances of hundreds of thousands of young people at the mercy of such predictive models.
It might have followed the example of Germany by holding exams in an appropriately socially distanced manner. It might have trusted teachers to predict grades based on their close knowledge of the individual young people in question (as in France). It ultimately changed the policy and did the latter, but significant damage had already been done by that point.
Not only did this Conservative government go down the algorithm route, but there was virtually no debate as to whether this was even wise – or just – beforehand. This speaks to the fact that the ability of algorithms to produce impartial, objective knowledge is now taken for granted in British political life.
Algorithms, though, are inherently and inescapably political. They are political in the types of data they take in and in how they treat data.
Above all, there is a politics to how the outputs of algorithms are interpreted. After all, facts don’t speak for themselves, we speak for them. That includes what consequences we decide should follow from an algorithmic prediction of a student’s grades.
However, that’s all too often an inconvenient fact for government, which would prefer to be able to continue using algorithms when expedient in order to depoliticise tricky political issues, such as how to handle university admissions during a pandemic. That it didn’t work in this instance does not change the fact that it’s par for the course.
Another strategy politicians like to use is to shift blame when a policy goes wrong. In education secretary Gavin Williamson’s case, this involved briefing against officials in his department and outright blaming the regulator charged with moderating exam results. Ofqual, Williamson insisted, had repeatedly reassured him about the “robustness and fairness” of the algorithm.
Ofqual, in theory, made for a great political whipping boy in this case due to its formal legal separation from government. Even though they could effectively dictate to Ofqual, Williamson and the rest of the government could rely on a lack of public knowledge of the regulator and its function to simply blame it for botching A-level results day – or so they thought.
In the event, this strategy failed. The public outcry was such that the education secretary was forced to make a u-turn, which, thankfully, he did.
But this isn’t the end of the story. Now, after Williamson’s climb down, many more students than in a typical year have the grades they need to get into a top university. That leaves universities trying to work out how to accommodate them all.
Many of these universities will inevitably offer deferred places, but again this creates problems because it means that students set to leave school next year will face much stiffer competition, once again because of fewer places being available.
Meanwhile, other, less selective universities face financial ruin because tens of thousands of applicants who would normally arrive at their doorstep after failing to get into their first choice have instead been sucked up by the more prestigious institutions. Unless emergency funding from government is forthcoming, redundancies on an even greater scale are inevitable, and whole departments and even whole universities may go bust.
Why is Williamson still here?
In which case, why hasn’t Williamson been sacked or resigned yet? It has been suggested that the reason why is because, as a former chief whip, he knows where the bodies are buried. Others have suggested it’s because the Johnson government has vowed never to give in to media pressure.
The reality is probably more prosaic than that. After all, Williamson has previously been sacked (by Theresa May when he leaked sensitive information on Huawei), and it’s hard to believe Boris Johnson and Cummings would keep a bungling minister in post simply because there was pressure to sack him.
Williamson is in the prime minister’s good graces thanks to his support during the parliamentary battles over Brexit in late-2019, when it still seemed a realistic prospect that Johnson might be the shortest-serving prime minister ever. But another more cynical reason for keeping Williamson around is, once again, the blame game.
Johnson, conspicuous by his absence during most of the A-levels mess, has more or less staked his reputation on getting schools back open by autumn. Needless to say, this is a big ask due to coronavirus-related logistical difficulties and the opposition of trade unions.
If the plan doesn’t work, someone who isn’t Johnson will have to take the blame. In which case, Williamson might find out what it feels like to be Ofqual right now.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.