We got algorithms… but we should be asking for something more…

Who could ask for anything more, to quote from that lesser-known George Gershwin song, I Got Algorithms.

We’re used to algorithms on the internet. Google something on one device and what you searched for pops up on another device, like a relentless stalker or a private detective rummaging through your bins.

Services we receive for ‘free’ – Facebook, Twitter, Google and so on – take our personal information as their reward, and we shrug because we enjoy social media and quick searches.

But using algorithms to decide the results of exams not taken because of Covid-19 is something else altogether, something darker and dystopian. It betrays our children’s future and is a disgrace.

Yes, there never was going to be an easy way to sort this out, but leaving algorithms to decide the A-level grades should shame the government – or it would if this bunch weren’t so shameless.

The price of entry into Boris Johnson’s cabinet is low: say Brexit was the best idea ever and you’ll be whisked through the door and never mind your talent.

Just look at Gavin Williamson, sacked as Defence Secretary by Theresa May and then chosen by Johnson to run education.

By the charter of columnists and bloggers, no word of Williamson is allowed to pass without mentioning that he once sold fireplaces in Scarborough. Or that he told the Russians “to go away and shut up” – a devious ploy only if the intention was to make Vladimir Putin die of laughter.

Useless people are often said to fail upwards and what must have attracted Williamson to Johnson is that the prime minister likes other people to make him look good. Others can fail upwards too, so long as they don’t fail upwards higher than him.

Williamson is likely to be canned for the hurt and anger stirred by the A-level algorithms. Such is the lot of lickspittles once their master sees advantage in their defenestration (stage direction: Dominic Cummings slides up the sash window and asks Williamson to step over for a minute).

But the blame should spread further than one man, as Williamson’s behaviour is symptomatic of the government’s high-handed carelessness, with policy being made on the hoof so often, they’ll soon be right out of hoofs.

The most alarming aspect of the A-level algorithms is the down-grading of results of pupils attending schools in less advantaged areas.

Almost 40% of results were lowered in this way.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham is considering legal action against the government over the results. He accuses ministers of the “single biggest act of levelling down this country has ever seen”.

Private schools have been less affected by these cruel and rigid algorithms. While the computer said no to many disadvantaged kids, it nodded the well off through (business as usual, nothing to worry about here), because of smaller class sizes and smaller subject groups.

The guilty algorithm was designed by Ofqual, the non-ministerial department that regulates exams. Oddly, the Royal Society of Statistics is reported to have recommended ways to make the algorithm fairer, but Ofqual rejected its advice because it refused to sign a no-disclosure agreement.

Teachers who have known their students for years were ignored, their marks and observations over-ruled by the computers.

Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian and Observer journalist who lives in the dark burrows beneath social media, tweeted to this year’s A-level students: “You have been robbed of your future by an algorithm. The tech dystopia many of us have been warning about is here. You’re it. Your data was used to profile you without your consent. This is not ok. Be furious. Fight back.”

Also on Twitter, Lisa Bradley, journalism lecturer at Sheffield University and author of the new thriller Paper Dolls, received much attention for tweeting:…

“So..my neighbour got a predicted A from her teacher, B in her mock…and was given an E. A kid from the private school on the next road got a C in her mock, a predicted B and was awarded an A*. Just..? Kids..you’ll be of voting age in the next general election. Remember.”

One-off examples don’t of themselves prove anything, but Lisa’s one-off is replicated all over the country, and the blatant unfairness is plain for all to see.

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