The scandal over Ofqual’s downgrading of hundreds of thousands of A-Level results continues. But a blog post by Dominic Cummings in 2015, and his links to Ofqual, show where the motivation for what The Canary‘s editor-at-large Kerry-Anne Mendoza called “class warfare” may have come from.
Because Boris Johnson’s right-hand man explicitly wrote that civil servants and MPs had ‘corrupted’ A-Levels, essentially making them too easy. And that the drive to give as many pupils as possible “access” to be able to take them had ‘devalued‘ the whole process. But reading between the lines, it may actually be GCSEs that are the Tories’ real target. And it’s embedded in notions of Eugenics.
The proportion of A-level entries awarded an A grade or higher has risen to an all-time high, with 27.9% securing the top grades this year, figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland show.
But exam boards downgraded nearly two in five (39.1%) pupils’ grades in England, according to data from Ofqual – which amounts to around 280,000 entries being adjusted down after moderation.
Since then, education secretary Gavin Williamson has come under renewed pressure to resign, with Johnson so far standing by him. Students have held protests over the results. And dissent in the Tory ranks appears to be growing. The Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee told BBC Radio 4‘s World at One programme that:
some figures suggest that disadvantaged students have been penalised again…
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If the model has penalised disadvantaged groups this is very serious and if it has disadvantaged colleges that has to be looked at. Ofqual will have to adjust the grades.
So far, Ofqual and Williamson have refused to budge, with the former appearing to be in chaos. In the space of a few hours on Saturday 15 August, it released then withdrew its guidance over the appeals process. But at the heart of this story is Ofqual’s algorithm, which favoured private school pupils best and students from the most deprived areas worst. This is because it was partly designed around subject pupil numbers – so the smaller the “cohort” taking a subject, the higher the average grades would be.
Some commentators are claiming that Ofqual should have realised this would happen. For example, one analyst correctly predicted the percentage of downgraded results over a week ago. The Good Law Project is planning a judicial review of Ofqual’s grading process. Although it may fall on deaf ears – because, by giving students free access to appeals, the Tories will say the issue is resolved.
But a blog post by Cummings in 2015 shows that this huge downgrading of A-Level results fits almost exactly with his plans for education reform.
In his blog, Cummings criticised a Department for Education (DfE) decision to stop independent annual reviews of A-Level papers. The A-Level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB) did this to see if they were of the right standard. Cummings wrote:
The DfE hated giving away control, obviously, and hated ALCAB. The very point of the process – a sword of Damocles in the form of eminent professors saying ‘crap questions’ each year – was supposed to force the DfE, exam boards, and Ofqual to raise their game. You can imagine how popular this was. Now the situation will revert to the status quo – the DfE firmly in charge and those pesky professors who point out things like – specific papers do not test the maths skills in the specifications – are happily excluded, with no ‘unhelpful’ public scrutiny of standards.
In short, Cummings believes A-Levels ‘need improving’. But there’s another side to this story: next week’s GCSE results. It seems that Ofqual will be using the same algorithm to determine these results. Some organisations are warning that the effect on disadvantaged pupils may be worse than with A-Levels.
Once again, Cummings wrote at length about the devaluation of GCSEs, bemoaning the fact that they had been made “easier“. His thinking appears to be that the whole education system is being watered down, and that pupils who are not naturally academic are still appearing as such, because of higher grades. And a paper he wrote several years ago reveals why he thinks this is a bad thing.
Cummings wrote this paper during his time as a special adviser to the then education secretary Michael Gove. From the views expressed therein, Cummings appears to believe that “cognitive ability” is hereditary. Therefore, as he notes:
Raising school performance of poorer children is an inherently worthwhile thing to try to do but it would not necessarily lower parent-offspring correlations (nor change heritability estimates). When people look at the gaps between rich and poor children that already exist at a young age (3-5), they almost universally assume that these differences are because of environmental reasons (‘privileges of wealth’) and ignore genetics.
It is reasonable to hope that the combination of 1) finding the genes responsible for cognitive abilities, 2) scientific research on teaching methods, and 3) the power of computers to personalise learning will bring dramatic improvements to education – but this will not remove genetic influence over the variation in outcomes or ‘close the gap between rich and poor’. [Emphasis added]
From this paper and his blog posts, it’s clear that Cummings has a problem with the focus on improving education for the poorest pupils, in terms of pushing them to get good GCSEs and go on to to A-Levels. When you break his rhetoric down, he is essentially saying that by encouraging children who are not (in his opinion) intelligent to try and perform better in school, you’re dragging all other students down with them. Hence the idea that GCSEs and A-Levels are now devalued.
The idea that some children are genetically predisposed to be more stupid than others, and that we have to separate them out to make sure the brightest and most ‘naturally’ able reach the top, is nothing short of Eugenics. And it’s happening now – right under our noses.
In July, Paul Goodman wrote for Conservative Home that Tory education reform is coming. Essentially, it seems that the Tories (led behind the scenes by Cummings) will be shifting to an emphasis on more vocational education along with science. Williamson said in a speech on 9 July that:
Further education is central to our mission of levelling up the nation. Or quite simply, giving people the skills that they need to get the jobs that they want.
Essentially, the Tories want to stop so many people going to university. Instead, as Williamson put it, the focus will be:
to put further and technical education at the heart of our post-16 education system.
Cummings in the driving seat
The education secretary also noted:
The tragedy is that for decades, we’ve forgotten about half of our education system.
When Tony Blair uttered that 50% target for university attendance, he cast aside the other 50%. It was a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose.
This is similar thinking to what Cummings wrote in his blog. He said:
There is massive political pressure to focus exclusively on the numbers taking an A Level rather than the quality of the A Level.
He also said:
Now, everything to do with A Levels is dominated by political not educational concerns about the numbers doing them and ‘access’. This has helped corrupt the exam system. If we had professors of physics, French, music etc every year publicly humiliating exam boards for errors, this would soon improve things from a low base and make it much harder for MPs and Whitehall to keep corrupting public exams.
So, where does Ofqual’s algorithm fit into this?
Six degrees of separation
Appears that Ofqual’s algorithm caused today’s A-level chaos. Ofqual chair Roger Taylor, also chairs the Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation (CDEI). Cummings’ fave AI consultants – Faculty, have some juicy contracts with CDEI. And Faculty’s COO Richard Sargeant is on CDEI board.
On the same day Johnson took the PM’s office (23 July 2019), Ofqual announced three new board members. One of them was Mike Thompson, a former Barclays executive who specialised in apprenticeships and the new, more hands-on T-Level qualifications. As the then education secretary Damian Hinds noted, these appointments came as:
Ofqual oversee an exciting period of reform to vocational and technical qualifications, as well as continuing to ensure the safe delivery of reformed GCSEs and A levels.
Movers and shakers
Interestingly, in October 2019, DfE strategy chief Tom Nixon left his civil service role to join Faculty – the AI firm Cummings used for the Vote Leave campaign. This firm is now embedded in the Tory government. As New Statesman Tech reported:
Nixon… has been tasked with establishing the company’s government practice and deepening its work with Whitehall and the wider public sector.
In January of this year, Ofqual was already looking into AI marking of exams. Then when it came to designing 2020’s marking algorithm, more people came on board. These included Tim Leunig, a prominent civil servant who Cummings reportedly had “quite a good relationship” with when they were both at the DfE.
If Cummings did have a hand in (or influence over) the Ofqual algorithm, it would fit in well with the government’s drive to promote further education for the ‘less-intelligent’ (i.e. ‘poorest’), and universities for the ‘brightest’ (‘richest’) students.
The breakdown of 2020 A-Level award results by socioeconomic status were broadly in line with previous years. But historically, there have been issues with the poorest students having their predicted grades wrongly estimated. “High ability” but poor students (AAB grades or above) have seen this effect the most in terms of downgrading of their predicted results, while over-prediction is high among poor students generally.
This disparity between predicted and actual grades could well be due to a student’s socioeconomic status and factors like availability of study resources, time poverty and so on. In other words, when it comes to sitting exams, poorer students may already be at a material disadvantage. This shows in the widening GCSE attainment gap between rich and poor.
So, a sudden upsurge in poorer students’ final grades (both GCSE and A-Level), would throw the Tories’ and Cummings’ plans for education off kilter. Therefore, the status quo (rich students doing better, poor students not so much) had to be maintained.
Maintaining the status quo
In non-coronavirus times, Ofqual uses previous years’ overall results as guidance for marking. It also uses something called the National Reference Test (NRT) – where thousands of students sit exams to get a benchmark result of what standard certain GCSE grades are at. So in short, this year’s grades will have the effect of maintaining the benchmarks for 2021 A-Level and GCSE results – and this will continue on and on.
Moreover, if students don’t get the required GCSE grades for certain A-Levels, it allows the government to immediately start promoting its further education and vocational routes. Williamson and the DfE have already set out increased funding for these areas. The same principles apply to A-Level results and university places.
So, by holding back poorer students this year, the Tories have maintained the environment for their ‘class war’ reforms to continue.
Know your place
Cummings wrote in no uncertain terms that:
Many of those now attending university courses in the UK and USA are wasting their time, and their own and taxpayers’ money, and would be better off in jobs or work-based training. In many third-rate HE institutions, there is a large amount of ‘social science’ work (in economics, anthropology, sociology, literary theory, and so on) of questionable value both from an intellectual perspective and from the perspective of the students’ job prospects. Reform of the long tail of HE [higher education] and FE [further education] is crucial
It seems that “reform” is coming. While an increase in vocational education is no bad thing, it’s why the Tories are doing it which is the problem. Make no mistake, it is little more than eugenicist classism: that poorer people should know their place, stick to manual jobs, and leave the critical thinking and complex study to those with the silver spoons in their mouths. Moreover, this class-based assault on the education system has long been in Cummings’ sights, since his “toxic antics” as Gove’s “master of the dark arts” special adviser.
Under the guise of “levelling up“, Cummings and the Tories are hell bent on returning us to a Victorian class system. And this year’s GCSE and A-Level students are on the front line in this ongoing class war.
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