Despite Government U-Turn, A-Level Algorithm in UK Schools Still Heavily Prevented Social Mobility for Black and Asian Muslim Students

England’s A Level downgrade on Thursday 13th August has affected students from disadvantaged areas hardest which consists of a large majority of Black and Asian Muslim students. While private schools with a majority of white students have benefited from the flawed algorithm, this poses the question of why is the government preventing social mobility?

Coronavirus has robbed students of the opportunity to complete exams they have studied for and get the grades they truly deserve.

Exam regulator Ofqual published a detailed analysis stating that pupils in disadvantaged areas were marked down. The analysis stated there “are likely some effects on prediction accuracy of ethnicity …. (and less over-prediction for the more disadvantaged among high attainers), but those effects have not been properly estimated.”

The government’s decision that university grades will be based on teacher’s recommended grades could also be problematic as Ofqual stated in its analysis: “there is some evidence to suggest that pupils’ characteristics can influence teacher assessments.”

The founder of the Equality Act Review, Dr Suriyah Bi concluded that the teacher assessment system could negatively impact Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) pupils. Respondents also raised concerns about Islamophobia. The report states that a “grades predictions system makes it easier to discriminate against already marginalised religious minorities such as Muslims, as student names are not anonymised.”

This raises the further concern of the often unconscious or systematic racism embedded in our society – teachers may unknowingly have negative preconceived notions of BAME students, thus resulting in lower grades for these students.

But what exactly is the A-Level algorithm devised by Ofqual and why has it caused so much controversy and heartache?

Ahead of results day, schools provided grade predictions. The flawed algorithm’s purpose was to maintain continuity by calculating statistics such as attainment, pupil ranking, and the school or colleges’ historical academic performance, rather than simply basing it on teacher’s predictions for each individual student.  Mock exam results and official previous exam results such as GCSEs also factored into the final grade. 

39% of teachers’ estimates for pupils in England were adjusted down by one grade after the algorithm was calculated, which downgraded 280,000 students.  A-level grades awarded to private schools doubled in comparison to secondary state comprehensives.

UpReach chief executive John Craven told the PA news agency: “There’s been rampant grade inflation in exams that are more prominent in independent schools because they’re not subjected to the standardisation process, yet Ofqual’s justification for standardisation was to avoid grade inflation.”

This meant that many high achieving students did not get into their chosen universities and some did not even get a passing grade. Students had been initially advised to appeal but in areas of poverty that would have been a hard task due to lack of financial resources and support, with the additional costs of resitting exams. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was adamant there would be no U-turn. But after student protests, he changed his mind on 17th August. He stated that “it was the right thing to act when it became clear that the A-level and GCSE results were unfair.” But this delayed response has meant many A-Level students have lost their expected university places or accepted offers from less desirable and preferred universities. On Thursday 20th August, Universities in England stated they will allocate students with the grades places on their first choice courses. But many will not be able to start until the next academic year.


Amidst this debacle, Brampton Manor in East London for a third year running had over 100 students achieve straight A*-A grades. The class of 2020 broke an impressive record of 38 Oxbridge places in 2019. But they stated on Twitter:This incredible success is despite a fundamentally flawed system. These talented students deserve even better results than this.”

The Department of Education was contacted on several occasions ahead of the results days with statisticians and organisations expressing concern for the algorithm. Many young people have ALREADY lost out on university offers, which is irreversible. Unless this is paired with unis increasing course places, any announcement is merely a PR stunt.

The algorithm was scrapped ahead of GCSE results on Thursday, August 20th, which meant there were more positive results. But we cannot ignore how the education system has marginalised Black and Asian Muslims from disadvantaged areas and low-income households. A postcode lottery system and past grades of an entire school shouldn’t determine an individual’s future.

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