Protests against the a-level exam algorithm

August 13 this year brought with it a results day that wasn’t quite like any other, although many aspects were still the same. There were still pictures taken of students jumping up with their results sheet (albeit far, far fewer), and there were still old friends happy to see each other after a long summer holiday. There was still the agonising, nervous wait to see the tiny piece of paper upon which the course of the next three or four years of my life is written.

But there were also students inconsolable with tears, people who had spent the past two (or more) years of their lives working towards something, only to have it snatched away by an incompetent and uncaring Tory government. For many of those people it was the first time they had felt the harsh blow of a government and state that couldn’t care less about ordinary people, while for others (generally working class, queer, disabled and communities of colour) it was a repetition of the same old cycle of insitutional violence. This is the consequence of a grading system where almost 40% of results got lowered from the Centre Assessed Grade. Naturally, students like myself were absolutely furious with the slap in the face we have received from Gavin Williamson’s shoddy attempt at replacing exams during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within hours there were plans of physical protests and a petition launched by the Young Greens.

The demands? Simple. Scrap the algorithm, let students use teacher grades. Obviously this is not a perfect solution as teachers are not immune to racism, classism and all sorts of biases – but it’s sure as hell better than the algorithm they’ve used.

Many of us have seen the Twitter horror stories of students predicted As who were given Cs, or predicted Bs and given Es. We’ve also heard about how people living in working class and ethnically diverse areas were more likely to have their grades knocked down by the computer (not surprising when we think about the kind of people who likely designed it). And of course, we know that private schools have benefitted from this system and have seen a much better result than state schools (particularly Sixth Forms and Further Education Colleges). But more than wrecking the plans of thousands of young people, this fiasco has exposed for many the deep and far-reaching inequality and discrimination entrenched within our education system.

A few days later, after Labour and some Tory backbenchers followed the lead of the Young Greens, the calls for grade justice became too strong to resist and Gavin Williamson was forced to make yet another Tory U-turn. He tried to create a competition where competition didn’t belong, and it was only by taking to the streets that we were able to send him packing. It felt good to have a victory in an era where the government’s handling of the climate emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic, institutional racism, poverty and inequality, the humanitarian crisis at our borders and Britain’s role in perpetuating violence and famine abroad has been utterly abysmal. And so we ask ourselves, what happened here that we can replicate in the myriad other fights for justice we face?

From the perspective of someone who picked up A Level results this year, I think that it was the spontaneous decision of thousands of angry, young people across the country to take to the streets that was indispensable. While I firmly believe that organisations like the Young Greens played a massive role in spreading the message, articulating demands and politicising the issue; it was undoubtedly this spontaneous expression of rage and despair on the streets that led us to victory. This is what the Engler brothers refer to as the “Whirlwind” in their book, This is an Uprising.

But what about the school strikes? What about the Black Lives Matter demos? What about Extinction Rebellion? Each of these movements have their own coalitions of angry, desperate people willing to step out onto the streets and take a stand for their values – why haven’t they succeeded?

There are two main differences, the first is that the aforementioned campaigns are all massive social movements with the aim of fundamentally restructuring society for the better. There is a whole system that they want to bring crashing down in order to build something better, and every now and then they are successful at knocking a brick out of the wall. The court ruling against Heathrow expansion, the moratorium on fracking, the declaration of a Climate Emergency by Parliament and several devolved bodies were all such bricks, but the planet-killing combination of capitalism and colonialism continues to chug ahead.

In the fight for a just and liberatory education system, this was just a brick. Our victory was in putting out a fire, rather than gaining ground in the struggle. We are left with the same old traumatising, racist, classist and imagination-crushing system as we had two weeks ago. As a close friend of mine reminded me recently, for people forced out of school because of their neurodiversity this U-turn will mean absolutely nothing. That’s why it’s so important that we understand this win – and it was a win – in the context of a brick, rather than the structure itself.
I really hate military metaphors (even more so after the pandemic), but it feels apt for us to describe this as winning a battle but not the war. There is still struggle ahead, for school leavers, for those dumped into the world of work during the worst recession we’ve ever had, for those in the school-to-prison pipeline, for young people in London at risk of losing their free transport.

So that’s where we move from here: we’ve managed to knock this brick out, but the wall still needs to come crashing down.

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Image credit: YouTube screengrab