What the A-level debacle teaches us about algorithms and government

Students protest the government’s handling of their exam results. Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

In the face of overwhelming public pressure and looming legal action, the government last week scrapped its algorithm for calculating A-level grades. This resolved pressing concerns about the algorithm’s accuracy and fairness, even if it also created fresh problems for students and universities. But algorithms will continue to play a growing role in public sector decision-making in the UK, across almost all areas and levels of government. It is therefore essential to learn the lessons of this debacle so that history is not repeated.

Much of the A-level controversy focused on substantive issues around how the algorithm operated. For example, was the government right to calculate grades based principally on a school’s historical results rather than a student’s academic performance, and to apply the algorithm only to cohorts of a certain size? These are critically important questions.

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Welsh government makes U-turn on A-level and GCSE results | Exams

Wales has joined Scotland and Northern Ireland in saying students will be awarded their centre-assessed grades. Wales’s education minister, Kirsty Williams, said that given “decisions elsewhere”, she had decided to back teacher assessment of students.

The decision will apply to A-levels awarded last week and the GCSE results that are due to be published on Thursday. A-level students who received higher grades than those predicted by teachers will keep those higher grades.

Northern Ireland is using teacher assessment only for GCSEs; A-level awards will stand.

The Westminster government announced a similar U-turn for England later on Monday.

More than four in 10 A-level grades predicted by teachers were lowered when Welsh results were published last week, prompting criticism from students, opposition politicians and Welsh Labour backbenchers.

Williams announced there would be an independent review of decisions made since the cancellation of exams due to the Covid pandemic.

She said: “We

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Labour urges delay to GCSE and A-level exams so students can catch up on education



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Labour has called for GCSE and A-level exams to be delayed by up to two months next summer in order to give students a chance to catch up on education missed because of the coronavirus.

The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said that the annual series of exams for year 11 and year 13 pupils in England should be pushed back from May to June or July to allow time for extra learning.

And she said that the announcement on a new timetable should come quickly to avoid a repeat of the chaotic last-minute decision-making around this year’s A-level and GCSE results and the arrangements for this week’s return to classrooms.

In a letter to Ofqual in June, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, confirmed that his intention was for exams to go ahead in 2021, and he asked the regulator to draw up plans for

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