The great game: dodging blame for the 2020 A-level results train wreck

The A-level results came out on August 13th. In the absence of exams, they were estimated from several data sources using a fairly intelligent algorithm. Results were well up on last year, yet there were such howls of anguish that the government was forced into a humiliating policy U-turn four days later. What on earth went wrong?

In retrospect, we can see the algorithmic approach was doomed from the start. Let’s walk through this, taking a gamified perspective on the motivations of each type of player.

Who plays this game, and what are their motivations?

Teachers want their students to get to college. A few teachers probably deliberately inflate the grades they predict. Research over the last three decades shows that teachers tend to over-predict anyway.

School leaders want to improve the reputation of their institution. A few leaders perhaps encourage teachers to inflate grades, or at least turn a blind eye.

Believing some schools are doing this puts everyone else under pressure to do it too, or risk letting down their students/institution. This creates an inflationary feedback loop.

Exam board analysts can see in the numbers how much of this is actually going on, but cannot speak out because the schools are customers and their statistical evidence won’t stand up in the court of tabloid journalism.

Politicians want to be seen to be nice. Reliability of grading delivers them no benefit. They individually act to make the mud stick to their opponents and not to themselves.

Ofqual is the patsy. Its function is to take the blame.

The results come out.

The school leaders who toed the line at the start find their students have indeed been disadvantaged, and they cry foul.

Now every school leader must cry foul or risk being accused of not supporting their students. Every school or college has at least one student with weak mock results, after all. Howls of protest resound across social media.

It is now the middle of summer. Celebrities appear to have completely forsworn sex and drugs, and the tabloids are desperate for a scandal. They make hay with pictures of pretty blonde teenagers in tears, and inflammatory statements from opposition politicians.

Politicians see no benefit in taking the heat. Scotland crumbles first, then Northern Ireland, then Wales and finally England.

And in September…?

Universities will find themselves stuffed with students who, in some cases, are not intellectually equipped for undergraduate study. I just hope they enjoy the parties, because that is all the benefit they will get for their £60,000 student loans.

So what should have happened?

Once the traditional exams were cancelled, there was no way the train wreck could not happen. The points were set and the locomotives were on a collision course.

To understand how it should have been, look at those sectors of the economy that were largely untouched by the pandemic lockdown. Many organisations simply switched to home-based telecommuting. The reason they could do this is that they went digital years ago.

Paper is largely gone from most areas of human endeavour. That was not done just in case an epidemic came along; it was done to save money. Paper-based workflows are massively time-consuming and wasteful. If schools had gone digital when they should have (about 15 years ago), the disruption to teaching or assessment would have been far less.

Why didn’t they? Uh, that’s down to the exam boards. By continuing to insist on handwritten paper exams, the boards effectively blocked schools from going digital. Up until the lockdown, school leaders demanded that student output remain on paper, to train the students to pass paper exams.

So, dear exam boards, you brought this on yourselves, but you did it 15 years ago. I shall leave you with a Chinese proverb.

The best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago. The second-best time is today.

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