Exam results show governments failing post-pandemic test

Ireland still has an opportunity to learn from mistakes made by UK with results algorithm

The algorithms deployed to predict exam results in the UK appear to have penalised children from poor backgrounds and/or underachieving schools. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The algorithms deployed to predict exam results in the UK appear to have penalised children from poor backgrounds and/or underachieving schools. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

 

The question of the age focuses on the ways in which Covid-19 will change things forever. Will office life ever be the same? One of London’s largest investment banks announced last week that working from home is now permanent. What does this mean for our city centres, investments in commercial real estate and our daily routines? If many firms adopt similar policies, the effects could be truly profound.

So far, so conventional. What all this might mean for our suburbs and dormitory towns has received less attention. While coffee shops, restaurateurs and retailers might fret about footfall near semi-deserted offices, working from home might mean pleasant surprises in store for the owners of corner shops and other suburban businesses.

A repurposing of cities offers all sorts of potential. Most mentioned is renewed city centre living. I’d add education hubs to the list of possibilities. Globally, cities with large third-level education sectors are vibrant.

In the UK, Boris Johnson was elected on a “levelling up” platform, with commitment to easing the pain of the left behind. Prominent commentators wonder if Covid-19 will kill off the populism that plagues our politics, perhaps via mitigation of its primary causes, income and wealth inequality. We conclude tentatively, but hopefully, that governments who are seen to handle the virus “well” will turn out to be the popular ones.

Populists

The populists, Johnson, Trump and the usual list of suspects, have little interest in governing and are concerned only with permanent campaigning.

But government as a performance art is not consistent with effective management of a health crisis or its economic consequences. Ultimately, so the argument goes, electorates will punish governments that have zero appetite for governing and its corollary, competence.

It was, in the wider scheme of things, a small thing, but the Johnson-Cummings administration just failed its first levelling up test. A-level results, the UK’s equivalent of the Leaving Certificate, have been announced and have turned the word algorithm into a term of abuse.

What they could have done is spot the open goal; instead, they pretended they were in a penalty shoot out with Germany in a world cup semi-final.

They could have noticed that one of the biggest causes of inequality is the education system. The way education is rigged such that the sharp-elbowed classes get their kids into the best schools, universities and jobs is as well known as it is impervious to change.

There isn’t much the state can do about how kids choose their parents but the years between nursery school entry and college graduation are, or should be, a matter of government control.

Missed opportunity

It looks like the algorithm deployed to predict A-level results penalised children from poor backgrounds and/or underachieving schools. What a missed opportunity.

This generation of 18 year olds has had a particularly miserable few months and has a spectacularly difficult number of years ahead of them.Their current and future well-being has been placed at risk to save the older generation

The opportunity to do a bit of levelling up, or at least to spread a little joy, has been utterly missed. In the interests of preserving “the integrity of the system”. What integrity? It was utterly rigged to begin with.

If kids had been rewarded with grades above their current intellectual capabilities, or work ethic, the Darwinian forces present in the workplace or university would have sorted that out: first-year exams and employers would soon spot the spoofers.

But late developers granted first acquaintance with decent libraries, lecturers and workplace mentors could have had their prospects transformed. Inequality and its result, populism, comes in many forms but mostly involve opportunities for some – the ones we take for granted – being denied to too many.

Serious problems demand serious people committed to their solution. Coronavirus requires many more big decisions. How long to continue the wage subsidy, furlough and other schemes? There is a huge risk that the gap between the winding down of state support for the economy and the end of the pandemic will just be too big.

There could be a big policy mistake: for as long as bond markets allow, I’d recommend borrowing until the vaccine is found. And then launch the post-pandemic fiscal boost. I’m not sure that markets will co-operate or that twitchy chancellors and ministers for finance will do the right thing.

If you can make a mess of exam results I wouldn’t hold out much hope of policy competence elsewhere.

Performative governments are failing their people. The debate in the UK over exam results does not bode well for the necessary decisions that are coming down the track.

Was it by accident or design that we decided that the predictive Leaving Certificate algorithm could wait to be run until well after the UK’s experiment?

That decision to wait until September 7th always looked odd. But it could have been inspired. Learning from the mistakes of others is a mark of intelligence. How smart are our leaders?

There is an opportunity now to do something right. Lay down a marker about how the future doesn’t have to be like the past and that things can be made better by intelligent policy design. Let’s hope that isn’t an oxymoron. Get this year’s Leaving Cert right and then think about the future of education more broadly.

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