A-Levels: 'We all know inequality and bias when we see it'

Some pupils are plagued unfairly with disadvantage as they go through the school system
Students of the eleventh grade sit with face masks in a classroom of the Phoenix high school in Dortmund, western Germany, on August 12, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Schools in the western federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia re-started under strict health guidelines after the summer holidays. / AFP / Ina FASSBENDER

Until the Covid-19 pandemic brought societies across the world to a grinding halt, it had seemed like we were just too caught up in our own lives to notice the disadvantages and inequalities all around us. And in the social quietness that ensued from the lockdown, it turns out, some of the many wrongs of society came up for scrutiny.

In the UK, for example, the problem of the homeless going hungry and sleeping on the streets was solved literally overnight by the British government allocating £3.2 million (Dh15.4m) of initial emergency funding to those 'rough sleeping' and in need to self-isolate to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

It went to show that despite obstacles, where there was a will, social injustice could be tackled. Even the much-discussed and often pooh-poohed Universal Basic Income was de facto introduced in all but name as people received income while they were not working and this kept people from reaching dismal levels of poverty.

The lockdown has caused us, inadvertently or not, to see what was happening around us and do something about it.

When we learnt of the murder of George Floyd in the US, it wasn’t that one did not before that hear of a disproportionately large number of cases of black men ending up dead in police custody. But this time we collectively processed the dehumanisation of our African-American communities and something seemed to shift in our perspective. We demanded police reform. The system had to change.

A similar demand for change has been taking place over the past few weeks in the UK with regard to the education system. The current debacle over the A-level results has exposed the disadvantages that plague so many pupils and that are amplified as they go through the school system.

Most pupils take their A-level exams as they turn 18. It is the pivotal test between school and university. Universities admit students based on teacher-predicted grades. When exam results are published in late August, those who have not got the grades they needed end up scrambling to find an alternative place through a system called clearing. It is the process through which universities and colleges fill seats they might still have on their courses.

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This failure is a lesson in how algorithms and machine learning neither evened out the education system nor removed bias from it

All in all this is a stressful and unsatisfactory system. And every August we hear of heart-broken students who have missed out on a place in the universities they’ve dreamt of. And every year there is discussion about standards, grade inflation and how the system is disadvantaged for students from poorer backgrounds, those attending state rather than private schools.

This year, because of Covid-19, there were no exams. Instead, an algorithm was developed to ‘standardise’ grades. But built into this were systemic biases. Small class sizes and less popular subjects meant that teacher predictions that favoured pupils who were enrolled at higher-paying private schools were upheld. This put the state schoolchildren at a serious disadvantage.

Worse, the grades of state school students could only be as good as the average of previous years. This meant that even those pupils who had outdone themselves and performed brilliantly were not awarded grades on merit but were de-individualised and downgraded.

This failure is a lesson in how algorithms and machine learning neither evened out the education system nor removed bias from it. Instead, the bias and inequalities were amplified at a cost borne unfairly by the pupils from lower-income backgrounds. The algorithm had quite evidently not worked.

It has not worked in some cases in the corporate environment either. That is why, for example, IBM announced earlier this year that it was abandoning its facial recognition software that entrenched bias against black people. And that is why Amazon had long given up its software for recruitment when it perpetuated bias against female applicants instead of disregarding gender, as the company had promised.

In the context of this A-levels grading mess, the above examples may seem to be just a handful of cases. Much more important and far-reaching is that UK’s education system is not living up to its goal of being the great equaliser. It is clear how disadvantage is built into the system from the beginning and how it snowballs from there, effecting disproportionately and unfairly the lives of many students.

Thankfully, the UK government made a screeching U-turn about the way it handled the future of hundreds of thousands of young people affected by this year’s miserable approach to A-level grading. And their begrudging willingness to admit their error should be acknowledged.

The public outcry in the country from across the political spectrum is justified. It shows that we all know inequality and disadvantage when we see it. Perhaps it is the case that to correct a wrong, we need to be exposed to inequalities in their starkest form – that too in the backdrop of a world where we believe that things can and must change.

It has been a difficult year and no doubt there are challenges still to come. The A-levels fiasco is, however, a chance for us to pause, scrutinise and make lasting change because we can’t go on like this. We can’t let our children pay the price.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf. Her latest book is The Extraordinary Life of Serena Williams

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National