The A Level Results scandal – a moral issue

I have written already about some aspects of the A Level results fiasco.  So far I’ve written about the political fall out and the technical and administrative errors.  It is important when we consider things that we think through all the implications. However, central to the scandal is a moral issue.

The moral issue is to do with the potential for students to receive grades based not on an assessment of their own abilities and work but on a corporate, depersonalised view of everyone’s abilities.

The primary excuse given for the application of the algorithm is that the results saw a sharp increase in top grades on previous years. It is worth noting at this stage that this is something that happens most years. Yet, in the past, an algorithm has not been applied to systematically lower grades to remove grade inflation.

It has also been suggested that teachers’ grading proved wildly inaccurate and there have been some lurid headlines to that effect. However, when you get beyond the headlines you read:

“But the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) said that, while the vast majority of teachers had submitted accurate estimates to exam boards, some had put forward wildly inflated grades.

“Because the circumstances meant there was no opportunity to develop a common approach to grading, the standard applied by different schools and colleges varies greatly,” a spokesman for the regulator said.

“A rare few centres put in implausibly high judgments, including one which submitted all A* and A grades for students in two subjects, where previously there had been normal distribution.”[1]

There are therefore two issues of justice and morality here.  The first is that it seems that all students are in effect being subjected to punishment because of the actions of a few.  If OfQual were aware of issues with one or two exam centres, then they should have investigated the issues at those centres. If the grading issues were the result of misunderstandings or over optimism then it would have been a simply matter of providing guidance to rectify the issue. If however there was malpractice to deliberately inflate a centre’s grades then that would have involved a breach of professional standards and criminal law and should have  been dealt with on that basis.

The second issue is that individuals have intentionally been subjected to injustice, presumably for the greater good. Student A may not get the grade he deserves, but the system has delivered grading it believes to be appropriate to the whole cohort. In effect this is utilitarianism.  I think it is important that a free and democratic society has knowledge and input not just into the rules but into agreeing the underlying moral philosophy that drives them.

Christians believe that people are made in the image of God and this is why they have individual value and dignity. Treating people made in God’s image as mere outputs of an algorithm fails to recognise this and is therefore, in my opinion, morally unjust. 


[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/08/13/teachers-accused-submitting-implausibly-high-predicted-grades/

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