During the Coronavirus pandemic we have repeatedly seen the government create confusion through their actions, and they have done so once again with the recent publishing of A-level results. Initially, the government used an algorithm developed by exam regulator Ofqual to calculate results based on data that took into consideration the past achievement of the student’s school. This resulted in almost 40% of students receiving results that were downgraded from the expected result they were given by their teachers (Algretti 2020a). Students around the country were outraged by the system which could have caused many of them to lose their place in university. However, as a result of popular outrage, in the afternoon of August 17th the government finally announced that they would abandon Ofqual’s system and instead award students the expected grades originally determined by their teachers (Algretti 2020b).
Given that the government has reversed their disastrous decision, why does this story still matter? Not only has the government’s mistake already impacted students who may have missed out on places in their first choice universities, this story also matters because it betrays the government’s blatant disregard for the ingrained inequalities in the UK’s education system.
The Ofqual algorithm significantly disadvantaged students from poorer backgrounds and benefitted wealthier students. By taking past performance of schools into consideration when determining an individual’s results, Ofqual’s algorithm caused the grades of high achieving students from poorer schools to be degraded while boosting the grades of low achieving students from prestigious private schools. In fact, the number of A grades at independent schools rose by 4.7% while sixth form and further education colleges only grew 0.3%. When faced with this inequality Boris Johnson denied its impact saying, “Looking at the big picture, I think overall we’ve got a very robust set of grades” (Algretti 2020a).
Johnson may have been satisfied with the fact that total A grades received rose from last year, however, he ignored the fact that this rise came mostly from independent schools at the cost of poorer students. Prior to the pandemic, systemic bias already pervaded the UK’s school system. In the latest data from the government, white students were almost twice as likely to receive A level grades than black students. Additionally, the gap between rich and poor students attending university has widened in the past four years (Pell 2016).
Given the ingrained preexisting disparity in education that stifles social mobility, the algorithm’s effects on inequality should have been the first thing examined, yet the government chose to ignore that this system would further deepen inequality.
The government may have changed their system, albeit after being pressured by mass political outrage, but this fiasco revealed their true priorities. In the midst of a pandemic that has already disproportionately affected poor and minority communities, instead of addressing inequality in education the government chose to perpetuate it. Higher education has been lauded as an equalizing force in society, a means for the poor to pull themselves out of poverty, but the government’s response has reminded us that this supposed meritocracy is far from equal.
Alegretti, A. (2020a) ‘A-level results: Government accused of ‘baking in’ inequality with ‘boost’ for private schools’, Sky News, 13 August. Available at:
Alegretti, A. (2020b) ‘Exams U-turn: Teacher estimates to be used for GCSE and A-level grades as controversial algorithm ditched’, Sky News, 18 August. Available at:
Pells, R. (2016) ‘Record gap between rich and poor students winning university places’, The Independent, 14 December. Available at: