Monday 17 August 2020

Classrooms and Class Politics

1. Another day, another government concession. Once news broke last week that some 40% of students were downgraded from their predicted grades thanks to the class/geography bias embedded in the Ofqual's grades algorithm, no matter how much the government hid from questions or dug its heels in, their position defending the exercise was untenable. Going back to teacher estimates is a major victory for a movement of disgruntled young people that appeared overnight and drove the wider public sense of injustice.

2. The extension of the government climbdown to GCSE results, due this Thursday, goes to show these too were about to suffer social sorting by algorithm. A repeat of the tertiary education fiasco would have proven even more explosive, affected even more young people and their families, and blown a gaping hole in the Tories' seeming invulnerability.

3. They call the Tories the stupid party, yet surely even they could see this coming? It was obvious from the beginning of lockdown that a system commanding the confidence of students, parents, and teaching staff was necessary to avoid just this sort of fiasco. And if not that, there was the Scottish Higher scandal from a couple of weeks ago, which some Tories MPs rather unfortunately made hay with. Their short-sightedness speaks of an arrogance an 80-strong majority and endless polling leads confers, but it is also part of a plan. Shrinking the state, that allegedly inalienable goal of post-1979 conservatism, is simultaneously an effort at minimising the area of political responsibility. If state provision is privatised, or marketised relationships between state institutions are introduced, governing is displaced by governance. It's no longer a case of a bureaucrat making a decision with a chain of responsibility running upwards to ministerial office, services are delivered by the play of simulated markets responding to signals provided by an elaborate system of metrics. These become "operational matters" to which workers and managers are beholden, but are ultimately the responsibility of no one. This is naturally attractive to politicians as it divests them of responsibility, and so new ways of depoliticising the administration of social life is constantly strived for. Algorithmic governance is just the latest manifestation of this game, and is something Dominic Cummings is particularly keen on. The refusal to prepare anything in advance was to allow the formulae to do their work, and then wash all hands of the inequities that result. Of course, algorithms are never neutral and only reflect the assumptions built into them - a lesson the rising generation has very quickly learned.

4. A good victory, but not a complete victory. As Clive Lewis rightly notes, students with BTECs and vocational qualifications are not included in the reversal. Why not? For one, A-Level students and their parents made the loudest noise, and, to be blunt, are more middle class and more likely to provide the Tories headaches in the key marginals. Meanwhile, BTEC cohorts tend to be more working class and vocationally oriented. If their grades aren't spared the algorithm, from the government's point of view this doesn't matter. Comparatively few have university destinations in mind, and certainly not the top institutions. And if they haven't got the grades to secure the apprenticeship they want, or land the trainee post they previously applied for, well, in an age of depression there's a wide enough pool of youngsters to fill the vacancies. The struggle isn't over yet and a climbdown is not inevitable.

5. And there are the universities themselves. Evidence for this being a panicked retreat is the cataclysm many institutions now face. Thanks to the huge shortfall of income with no students on campus, the evaporation of the conference market and, most importantly, the disappearance of international students from the coming semester, some were looking down the barrel of liquidation. This wasn't just your post-92s, it included some big and venerable names. One of the conditions the employers' organisation, Universities UK, managed to negotiate with the government in return for bail out loans was a temporary cap on numbers. i.e. Preventing top institutions from opening their doors to all applicants to make up for lost international income at the expense of those lower down the pecking order. That numbers cap has disappeared and so every student who has received an offer who would otherwise go elsewhere because they didn't get the grades means they get in, and a financial black hole opens beneath the universities who lose out. Affecting the typical Tory arrogance about higher education, Gavin Williamson has previously opined on overcapacity and "low quality courses." This crisis provides him an opportunity to reshape HE into employee induction factories and allow the "surplus provision" to vanish, with all the consequences that has for unemployment and impact on local economies.


Dialectician1 said...

Just a couple of comments, Phil.

1. Your second paragraph is really about the relationship between bureaucracy & capitalism. Going back to our friend Max Weber, he was keen to point out the necessity for a 'rational' framework to facilitate an increasingly complex market system. In an 'ideal type' bureaucratic system, legal-rational rules and hierarchical structures of command will regulate organisations. What is often known perjoratively as 'red tape' is really the process of legitimate regulation, (a bit like the autonomic system in the human body). But, of course, 'bureaucracy' has become a dirty word in the era of postmodernism and neoliberalism. Johnston, Cummings, Gove etc are the Pomo generation come of age, who see faceless bureaucrats as the real enemy: from Soviet style command economies, to the EU regulations, to Whitehall Mandarins, to local authority planning departments. Rather than regulate the market, bureacrats are perceived as attempting to stultify it. This is an extension of the Thatcher legacy. Who needs bureaucrats with their expert knowledge and clanking command structures when you can short-circuit the system by handing over regulation to computer operating systems or whizzo iconoclasts, like Cummings. We are beginning to see some of problems of this philosophy: from the 2008 crash to the Covid chaos.

2. On the other hand, with the fiasco over the handling of A level moderation, I'm not sure what the fuss is all about. Anyone who has worked for an exam board will tell you that they have always used algorithms to moderate the grades. There was a deliberate attempt to improve access to higher education during the Blair years, so the algorithm was changed and we got grade inflation. The key statistic was the standard deviation. Hand wringing about injustice within an already corrupt education system, which legitimises the children of sharp-elbowed middle classes being parachuted into Russell Group universities, isn't worth the effort. The whole meritocratic system is a con. This is a bourgeois game, which denies the need for a fundamental overhaul of this elitist system.

Ken said...

As you correctly point out, an algorithm has assumptions built into it which produces a desired result. Why is this any different from the allocation of students to grades in the A level system? The grade boundaries are manipulated once the scripts have been marked, and every year, the distribution of marks is a normal curve. Why is this? Is it always the case that year after year, the number of students who achieve C and below is the same as the students who get above this? The exam boards are desperate to show the government that an A level this year is the same value as last year. This is more to do with the legitimation of the selection process than anything independently occurring in the exam year after year. As a lecturer in education, you must have come across the phenomenon of a year when a cohort has done particularly well, however, if an institution awarded them with an excess distribution of Firsts, it would be regarded as devaluing the degree system.
The problem is not the manipulations of the exam system, but the use of education to legitimate the absence of real social mobility. It is part of the smokescreen which hides the absence of real prospects.

Ken said...


Anonymous said...

I am with Dialectician1 one here, on both his points.

I would add that the education system is designed to create ‘lost generations’, decide who will pick fruit and who will fine dine etc. Some have a passport to a better life, some get it up the ass.

So all the guff about our poor kids and lost generations leaves me a bit cold I am afraid.

The outcome will be pretty much the same as before the pandemic, some will be rewarded for a lifetime just for a few years effort at school and those that do well during these years will carry with them a lifetime of self entitlement, where they will believe they are simply entitled to a better life than anyone else.

Meanwhile the rest will scrap over the rest, such is the market system.

The pandemic has raised many many questions, one should be about what the education system is designed to achieve.

We should also demand that if we are paying for other peoples kids to go to university that when they are there they study hard and play a bit less. The caricature of the drunken student, having a ball while the rest of us toil doesn’t make me smile too much!

On other people kids, am I the only one sick to the back teeth of parents moaning about their kids being under their feet! We didn't force you to have to have them!!

Blissex said...

«parents moaning about their kids being under their feet! We didn't force you to have to have them!!»

Those sharp-elbowed middle classes (especially mothers) just want to have their cake and eat it too: to have children, but then have them taken care of by nurseries, schools and then sent off to universities.
Nothing new there: upper class mothers have often preferred to have their children taken care of by wet nurses, nannies, and then sent off to boarding schools.

Blissex said...

«The exam boards are desperate to show the government that an A level this year is the same value as last year.»

As "Dialectician1" wrote the real audience is "sharp-elbowed middle classes" voters who want to make sure that their investment in their children gets the returns they want by ensuring they get the small number of "good jobs".

«The problem is not the manipulations of the exam system, but the use of education to legitimate the absence of real social mobility.»

Social mobility is an aspect of "meritocracy", and it is itself a "part of the smokescreen which hides the absence of real prospects". Suppose that the system was such that there were 10% "upper class" masters enjoying high living standards and 90% "lower class" servants toiling in brutal conditions, and every 10 years by random selections 25% of the masters were swapped with the same number of servants. This would involve very high social mobility (5% [2.5%+2.5%] of the total population every 10 years would change class), and entirely fairly too. Is that something that we should strive towards?

My point is that if non-graduate jobs were fairly "good jobs" too, and the difference with graduate jobs were thus smaller, the matter of who gets access to universities and how would become a lot less salient, as the independent schools and the universities (or their Russell Group subset, or their Oxbridge one) no longer would be the gateways to the few "good jobs".