Defending the schooling racket

It feels as though the government’s decision to reverse its grading policy for the A-level exams in England was inevitable. Then again, many things look inevitable once they’ve happened.

It probably didn’t help that the moderation of grades annoyed so many people. Columnists across the spectrum decried it. Stories of tearful students having “had their futures destroyed” abounded. It was so jolly unfair, everyone agreed.

And, well, I have to laugh.

The problem was that the moderation system targeted people in large chunks, rather than treating students as individuals. Students with poor records were brought down by their institutions, even if the individual was brilliant. This was especially true of poor kids.

And yet to my eye the education system was already deeply unfair. As Tom McTague, a writer for the Atlantic, put it, “The algorithm was discriminatory, and disgracefully so. But isn’t the deeper disgrace here that it sought to imitate a system in writing that is itself discriminatory in practice?”

McTague is presumably referring to the disparity in the quality of schools. Some kids get access to ‘better’ education than others on the basis of parentage, wealth or location. The algorithm merely adjusted teachers’ assessments to reflect that.

There is an additional way in which the algorithm reflected life. By hitting individuals in an arbitrary manner it echoed how simple luck determines many of our successes and failures. The cricketer Ed Smith once wrote a book about it.

Critics of the government’s initial policy contend that if the exams had taken place the result would have been fairer, reflecting individuals’ abilities more accurately. No doubt that last part is true, but the former is dubious.

Education remains a political battleground for all sorts of reasons, but one is that it helps decide life’s winners and losers. Winners get good grades, go to good universities, and get good jobs (or would do if we weren’t producing too many grads). Losers get bad grades and are locked out of the elite professions.

Something needs to justify this, and so phrases referring to ‘hard work’ dominated education stories in the past week. Even in Britain we want to believe in something like president Barack Obama’s American dream, “If you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get ahead.”

There’s a lot of manmade unfairness that prevents such a dream coming true. People can appoint their brothers as government ministers, for example. Employers can discriminate against candidates for a job based on race. Industries can collude to lock out a competitor. Corruption, nepotism, and cheating are constants in human life.

Yet more fundamentally, humans aren’t born with equal potential. Even if you level out the quality of education and mitigate against the advantages or disadvantages of pupils’ backgrounds – which may not even be desirable when you consider what it would entail – you are still left with raw ability. And that is deeply unfair.

I would not advocate creating a race of Jango Fett clones, nor impose extensive regulation to negate raw abilities. But what would be nice is to admit that meritocracy entails handing the greatest rewards of life to those who arrived with the greatest gifts. We can then discuss whether this is good.

Talking about ‘hard work’ just distracts from the issue. You can slog your guts out over a project that generates no money or make one savvy investment that pays dividends. The economy doesn’t care how hard you worked, but what you produced. Equally exams don’t measure grit or perseverance (which are probably largely heritable traits anyway), they measure your ability to pass the test, hard-earned or otherwise.

Watching footage of students claim that the education system is unfair, I can only think, “No shit.” But it’s not unfair because the government ham-fistedly moderated a few grades; it’s unfair because it tests abilities that kids have or lack largely due to factors outside of their control.

(And that’s true whether you believe education makes people better employees or just signals that they would be good ones.)

A final note on algorithms, a much maligned villain in this saga. Right now, the argument goes, they are just not accurate enough for predicting individual performance.

However, can we claim that an accurate formula for predicting students’ attainment is impossible? If the folks in Moneyball can find good baseball players, it’s likely that we can give good predictions about which ten-year-olds will ace their A-levels (and go on to be good degree candidates and employees).

Of course, no algorithm will predict perfectly which pupils will suffer a drug addiction, a life-changing trauma, or anything else. But a decent forecast would bolster the signalling case for education – while providing a reliable signal without the drudgery of schoolwork.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact

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