Has the Conservative Party Forgotten about Equality of Opportunity?

While I welcome the Education Minister’s U-turn on A level results, it’s fair to say that this debacle has shown up vast incompetencies at the heart of government.

I was initially sympathetic to the government’s plight. It’s banal to say it, but the best approach would have been to actually sit final year students down to take exams (with some measures of leniency in place), as has been done at universities across the country. But without that as an option, what do you do? The government was left in a bit of a bind. If you don’t hold exams, then using mock exams/predicted grades on their own can be seen as unjust on previous cohorts or currents ones (it’s not standardised and you get teachers who grade cautiously etc). Equally, you can’t just cancel exams. So what do you do?

I’m not entirely sure, but you definitely don’t oversee the production of an algorithm that actively works against students’ efforts, and particularly against those already facing massive obstacles to attaining a university place. Teacher predictions weren’t the only factor in the algorithm and in many cases weren’t even the starting point. As Timandra Harkness has pointed out, underlying Ofqual’s standardising algorithm was a whole set of troubling assumptions, including the presupposition that “you are homogenous with your older schoolmates” or that “the future will look like the past and the present, in significant ways”.

It’s simply foolish to have not seen this coming and to have not stopped it, or at least warned students of the problems. In fact, the government probably shouldn’t even have involved itself in the process at all.

The other option, which is now being followed, is to accept the mock exams/predicted grades as the results and then let universities decide who they will take. Universities have their own processes and some, like Cambridge, conduct interviews with prospective students which is a good way to make an informed offer and judge more carefully the character and aptitude of the student.

But by opting, in the first instance, for a technocratic and faceless solution for which they, whatever else Gavin Williamson might say, are responsible, the Conservatives are now left with a lot of angry young people.

I am profoundly depressed at this set of affairs, and saddened as well that it has happened under a Conservative government. Small c-conservatives should be about equality of opportunity, where opportunities are based not on postcode but intelligence and merit. Equality of opportunity isn’t necessarily anti-hierarchical but anti-caste, in the sense that it is against employment restrictions placed on people due to their place in society. Some equality of opportunity advocates might not advise that the government actively give people opportunities. But all those in favour of the tenet of equality of opportunity would agree that those in authority should seek to try and create a fair marketplace where obstacles to opportunity are lifted, as best as possible. At the very least, that means getting out of the way and certainly not creating obstacles to opportunity.

The algorithm runs completely counter to this principle. It (or more accurately the unthinking assumptions of those people who designed it) reinforced a medieval caste system in which your cultural background, school and area effectively determined your shot at uni. Systems like this are incredibly unfair on those young people who, like rough diamonds, possess the talent to attain a university place but, in large part because of their school, get downgraded. Of course, many, if not most, will not have the brilliance or the aptitude to attain that place, and that is fine (they are to be no less esteemed as a person for that). There will always be those one or two students in such schools, though, who do possess the skill, and the algorithm wrongly punishes them.

Some on the right will stay silent about this story. Some of this is, in part, motivated by the desire to gain some distance from some of those on the left who have massively overreacted by calling, for instance, for private schools to be abolished or an end to all competition in education. Such assertions need to be dealt with shown, through argumentation, to be misguided. But in the meantime, the noble principle of equality of opportunity has been downtrodden by the very people who have vowed to uphold it. In prioritising addresses over aptitude, the Conservatives have been their own worst enemy.

Image Credit: The Times

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