Under Examination

In the UK over the last few weeks there has been an outcry over the decision to use “an algorithm” to decide the exam results of students whose school year was disrupted by Covid-19. (There are few things more insidious in the 21st century than a nondescript algorithm.) Whereas previously, in extenuating circumstances, a student’s “predicted grades” have been used when an exam or a course cannot be completed, this year, for reasons unknown, predictions are being sidestepped in favour of algorithmically-generated grades based on mock exam results and who knows what else. This led to horrifying levels of students having their results downgraded and left many already-alienated teenagers in coronavirus purgatory even less certain about their futures.

Thankfully, after a week of protests and outcry, the Department of Education and the examinations body Ofqual reversed their decision and allowed students’ grades to be based on teacher assessment rather than the insidious algorithm. The whole debacle has left a foul taste in the mouth, nonetheless. This country’s class dynamics were writ large in the fallout but the media has done all it can to ignore them — probably because the media is populated by people who never had to worry about how they were to be perceived as they entered the adult world of work.

That’s the main thing that stinks about media coverage of GCSE and A Level results day. We see the same narrative every year but fuck up the prospects of half the nation’s teenagers and it turns out that patronising discourse goes into overdrive.

As far as the media and the government are concerned, exam results are seen as a kind of lubricant to social mobility. It is an understanding that is deeply embedded in society itself — a kind of “academic realism”, if we might butcher Fisher’s concept some more. This is to suggest that, for the majority of parents and their children, there is no alternative to the university track. It is stifling but a norm reinforced from all sides. This is because, if you do good in your exams, at no matter what stage of your education, you’ll supposedly be better off. Points mean prizes.

That is far from the case, of course. (If things has changed at all in recent years, it is because the government’s trebling of tuition fees has made university less of a given to many of the poorest and least financially stable among us. This doesn’t mean there are alternatives, however; this just means that option no longer exists for those who need it most.) It seems to me like the truth is often inverted here. As far as I can tell, good results don’t necessarily make life easier for those with the decks stacked against them but bad results can make it a whole lot harder.

It reminded me of my own experience as a soon-to-be college student, not long after receiving my GCSE results. Even back in 2008, I found myself on the wrong end of an algorithm and required human intervention before being algorithmically denied my A Level prospects.

My GCSE results were truly a mixed bag. I had at least one of every single grade from A* to E. I was oddly proud of this at the time; I used to joke about my “full house”. The main thing was that I did well in the subjects that I cared about — A* in art, A in English Literature; I also miraculously scraped a B in maths despite being predicted much lower — and then everything from there on out wasn’t of much interest.

I didn’t think it mattered much, and I wasn’t particularly fussed because, frankly, I hated school. Having had the first proper onset of a depression that has stalked most of my adulthood, my priorities were more on my mental health than my exam results. The future wasn’t much of a consideration; I was, at that time, more focused on just getting through the week. And anyway, I got the grades I needed to do the A Levels I wanted (English Literature, Media Studies, Photography) so I didn’t think the rest of it really mattered.

It turns out it did, at least once the algorithm got involved.

On the first day of college, I had to have a meeting with the head. There was a lot of confusion about my results. I was clearly capable in the subjects I wanted to do but, because of the way my results were weighted, I’d come out with an average grade of a C/D, and the algorithm only cared about averages. I was technically on the borderline and a cause for concern and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to progress to the college at all if my grades in the subjects I wanted to do weren’t so strong. The problem, however, was that I had nonetheless been flagged up by the system and, under the auspices of the school’s algorithmic bureaucracy, I was supposed to have a few extra caveats added to my education.

Thankfully, there were humans on the other end to interpret the results. The teachers were also quick to realise that I was very capable, but my mental health issues at that time meant that putting me in an exam hall was a real gamble. I couldn’t work under pressure at all, generally freezing up in most exam scenarios. (The video from Novara Media below hits home regarding how important exam coaching is to good results; I still struggle with that kind of pressure today, but thankfully it is very rare that I’ll need to do an exam ever again.) The reality was that any exam could go great or it could be a complete car crash — which is exactly how my English Literature A Level went: I got an E on the first attempt and then got full marks and an A* on the resit. (Sadly, my coursework averaged it out to a B in the end.)

All of this is to say the obvious: I was a very inconsistent teenager, but is there a characteristic more applicable to the adolescent psyche than “inconsistency”? In fact, for most people, I don’t think that ever really goes away. Perhaps one of the most important things you can learn to do as you grow older is how to curate your own results better — this blog is certainly a testament to how much I struggle with that — but allowing this to be dictated by an algorithm is another matter. As Sonia Sodha recently put it, writing the obvious for the Guardian — and, of course, we live in a moment where the obvious often needs to be said:

We take it as given that dropping a couple of grades in a one-off exam should amount to the be-all and end-all in determining which university you go to. Have a good exam day, and you could be attending the university of your dreams; have a bad day and the anxious cycle of clearing starts. All this is predicated on the crazy idea that we need to avoid AAA students studying with ABB students, BBC students studying with BCD students at all costs or … what?

Rankings allow illusions of meritocracy and simple choices to prevail — obviously we should go for the AAA student over the ABB one — when the reality is they may be covering up a choice that is more random and arbitrary than we may like to think.

I have often thought about how my GCSEs and A Levels constituted something of a near miss in this regard. On paper, it was unlikely I’d ever amount to anything and this was probably why my decision to study photography was initially encouraraged — a low-stakes art degree. I agreed with the teachers for the most part. I had very low self-esteem and I was already deeply cynical about the whole education process anyway. I didn’t respond well to how things were taught, I didn’t see much future for myself in higher education, and even floated the idea of doing an photographic apprenticeship instead. Fortunately and unfortunately, my mum responded hysterically to this suggestion — I was going to be the first person in the family to go to university whether I liked it or not.

The irony was that I really did like it. The kind of study that I experienced as a photography student — self-directed but discursive — flipped a switch in my head. For the first time in my entire school career, from primary school (where I’d been placed in a special ed group for reasons unknown to me) through to college, I found myself actually flourishing in an educational institution. I didn’t feel that crushing futility that I was just wasting my time until the bell went and I could go home and do what I wanted to do.

I loved my arts education for that reason. It was a form of education that I really responded to and it allowed me to find my own way into the sorts of subjects that I’d previously been dissuaded from doing based on my exam results. I think about how I could have just as easily gone on to do philosophy or English literature at undergraduate level but would have found no way to translate my approach to learning into a form of examination that counted for anything at that level. I feel like a very lucky late bloomer.

I say all this not to offer up yet another patronising example of a happy ending thanks to the system. I feel like I found my feet late and very much despite this country’s educational infrastructure and bureaucracy.

A discursive space still has to be established for raising consciousness as to why these things happen, however. What they don’t teach you at school, and what you can only ever learn the hard way, is that that sense of being under examination never really goes away. I have found that my inability to respond to standardised testing and high pressure examinations has followed me persistently, for instance. Even though I have purposefully pursued qualifications since college that do not require an exam, I still find myself having to bend different systems to my will in order to find other ways to demonstrate my capabilities to those who have the power to make decisions about my life — even in medical exams. Twelve years on from my GCSE results, I might have a Masters degree and a book out, but the pressure felt to prove my worth or my ability against the inconsistent record of my inconsistent life is suffocating.

The reality, as this exams debacle proves, is that the stakes are too high for the majority of children and young adults, especially those who cannot afford to keep a clean record. It only takes a bad day or, even worse, alternative brain wiring an an incompatible form of learning, to make you feel good for nothing for the rest of your twenties, if not longer. I’m reminded of Fisher’s essay “Good For Nothing” here, of course. The illusion of meritocracy that has been shattered by this deferral to an algorithm may have just politicised a generation in much the same way the trebling of tuition fees did. It demonstrates how an incompetent elite falls back on tactics of low-level subjugation at every level of society, epitomising the structure of feeling that Mark was speaking to when he wrote the following:

For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ — the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be — is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression — whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it. A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.

The establishment of this kind of consciousness begins on (and is exacerbated by) successive results days every year. The establishment, however, has accidentally revealed its hand. It has revealed the structure often kept hidden behind their insistence on magical voluntarism. The media and even your average Twitter user has followed suit, revealing just how deep-rooted this structure goes, and how mundane it believes its deflation of young people’s worth is. The truth is that this kind of malignant bureaucracy, tilted in the favour of the children of elites, has been getting away with this sort of bullshit for decades.


  1. While I do kinda agree with your post, I’m not sure if I feel the same way about you on grade inflation. As an 18-year-old who’s doing his November 2020 IB (and with a few friends doing As), grade inflation terrifies me, probably because of my impostor syndrome. I mean, I want to be a physics, but I’m continually terrified that my physics grades have been inflated and I would be not great at physics after all. Not quite rational, yes, but that’s how I feel.

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