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Fancy a Go on the Skid-Pan?

Robin Copland
© Rubén Rodriguez | Unsplash

Here’s a question for you: what do John Swinney, Peter Weir, Kirsty Williams and Gavin Williamson all have in common?  I’m going to give you a clue – they are all a bit closer to their respective exit doors than they were this time last week.  Any idea?  I’ll give you another clue – they are all politicians based in the UK.  I’ll leave that thought with you for the moment and take some time to explain…

In the UK, there are public school-leaving exams that are centrally marked.  The better the grades, the more chance a pupil has of getting on the course they want at the university of their choice.  England, Wales and Northern Ireland school pupils sit A levels while in Scotland they sit Highers and Advanced Highers.  The pandemic fell at exactly the wrong time for these examinations, so it was agreed that there would be no public exams this time around and that results would be awarded to the students on the basis of their course work through the year and the mock exams that many had sat earlier.  Basically, it was down to teachers’ assessments.

Except.  Well, except, it wasn’t.

Enter an algorithm.  Now here, I need to be honest.  I don’t actually know what an algorithm is.  Neither does my dictionary but seeing as I inherited it from my granny (who died in the 1960s) – well, you get the picture.  It’s something vaguely to do with computers.  Notwithstanding that, here’s what I think the dictionary entry probably looks like…

Algorithm n 1.  the application of a mathematical formula to a set of exam grades that particularly skews the results of those who attend a school on the other side of the railway tracks (disadvantaged pupils) so that, instead of achieving predicted results, they are marked down two, three or sometimes four grades.  2.  The act of screwing up a young person’s exam results, so that they do not get to start the university course of their choice.  3.  The act of screwing up a young person’s exam results, so that they do not even get the chance to go to university, full stop. 

Because Scotland’s results came out earlier, John Swinney (remember him from the first paragraph?), who is the deputy first minister in the Scottish parliament and the education secretary, was the first to suffer a backlash.  75% of exam candidates did not have their predicted results tampered with but – you know where this is going – 25% did.  And most came from disadvantaged backgrounds or had attended schools whose results in previous years had been poor.  The algorithm said, “there must be some mistake” and some talented young people who had been predicted to achieve high grades found themselves out on a limb.  The initial defence that Swinney put up was that the results would have been statistically unbelievable had some of them not been downgraded.

The pupils demonstrated.  They complained bitterly about what had happened and Swinney came under so much pressure that, within a day, he and the Scottish government had performed a complete volte face.  The teachers’ predictions were reinstated and all was well with the world.

So, imagine for a minute that you’re Peter Weir in Northern Ireland, or Kirsty Williams in Wales, or Gavin Williamson, who is in charge of the education portfolio in England.  You have seen what has just happened to John Swinney in Scotland.  You are about to put your faith in a similar algorithm in your country.  And what, dear reader, didn’t we know in all of this?  Well, we didn’t know that the three of them shared a hobby – driving onto an ice-covered skid pan with no seat belt on.  Because that’s basically what they did.  Unbelievable, isn’t it?  The three of them ploughed on regardless and they all had to make the same embarrassing U-turn not long after.  They had learnt nothing.  They were so confident in their own abilities to “sell” their solution, to persuade the rest of us that they were right and we were just plain wrong – that they just drove onto the skid-pad and crashed.

People sometimes tell us at Scotwork that they have no power.  I am a poor person from a disadvantaged background – what on earth can I do?  Especially when the person on the other side of the table is an ace salesperson with the gift of the gab.  Sometimes though, you have more power than you think.  Sometimes you can exert pressure – social pressure, economic pressure or, in this case, political pressure – so much pressure that you force the other side to either concede completely (as happened here) or at least to come back to the negotiating table in the knowledge that their first tactic failed spectacularly.

Negotiators can learn a thing or two from those brave youngsters who stood up for themselves and had their grades reinstated.

Robin Copland
More by Robin Copland:
Clean Breaks
Soft Power
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