Paul Grainger, Co-director of the Centre for Education and Work, and Head of Innovation and Enterprise for the Department of Education, Practice and Society, UCL

#ALevel and #GCSE #ResultsDay - A Low Moral Ebb 

On Monday 17 August FE News published a piece on a lack of ethics in AI[1] which I co-authored.

Between the writing and the publishing, it became clear that the grasping villains and avaricious rogues that I had perceived to be behind the unethical abuses of AI had been joined by elements of the British establishment: the Secretary of State for Education and the officers of Ofqual, the examinations and assessment regulator.

The algorithm that they had devised to standardise A level and GCSE results is not to blame for the unnecessary distress caused to thousands of young people and a blatant attempt to impose a massive injustice on a whole age group.

The algorithm simply did what it was told to, quietly and efficiently. As with all AI, as with all machines, they simply do what they are built to do.

We are not yet into the world of science fiction where humans are enslaved by machines. The humans who design these things remain very much in charge and are ethically responsible for the consequences.

What the scandal has laid bare are the prejudices of those who devised the algorithm.

Private schools and grammars were faring better.

Small group sizes were favoured (despite evidence that small group size has a detrimental impact of performance at this level).

Students were ranked. A school or college’s historical performance was factored in.

This delivered a statistically satisfactory profile, restricting any insinuation of grade inflation.

This was the goal – maintaining macro standards across a cohort, giving universities and colleges a recruitment profile that they could cope with.

No hint of any justice for individuals.

No concern at self-fulfilling prophecies.

Students are not statistics

There is always individual movement within a demographic profile. Nor is performance predictable with such precision. Research at UCL[2] discovered that only 25% of grades across 3 A levels were accurate.

That does not mean that the teachers were necessarily wrong. There is nothing sacred about exams. They have their flaws. They suit some students better than others.

At this time the COVID pandemic has caused disruption to assessment regimes globally. However, there are always cases of individual disruptions: death in the family, illness, hay fever, menstruation.

The snapshot nature of an exam is far from being unflawed. They are not a scientific process, but a series of judgements by markers and moderators.

No algorithm should be in a position to over-rule these judgements. Part of the problem is the mystique that has grown up around exams, shrouded in secrecy and mysterious goings on.

At least this present episode has laid bare the built-in presumptions of those who run the examination system. It is clear that students do not always receive the grades that they deserve.

This whole process has caused havoc

Stuart Rimmer 100x100At East Coast College Group, which has within the group one of the highest performing sixth form colleges in the country, Principal Stuart Rimmer suggested:

“Despite our very high achieving results that had a reasonably good ‘fit’ institutionally, it has been heartbreaking with students having to delay or fight for university places they should easily secure.

"The algorithm produced some outlier results. Even now with a U-turn it leaves some progression to higher education or apprenticeships at risk."

For me this is an illustration of wider points:

  1. Firstly, there is a lack of trust in the system of teaching professionals to award assessed grades, and
  2. Secondly shines a spot line on exam inequality.

In other years there is still moderation using standard distribution against previous years. The UCAS system and even the wider examination system and its application is not free from bias and often replicate success for those already successful or testing a government preferred type of intelligence or skill.

These adjustments, decisions and approaches are not simply mathematical but are both political and ethical actions.

Assessment is one of a teacher's core skills

There are alternative assessment regimes. BTEC achieved its reputation for excellent vocational learning based entirely on course work, only having to switch to examinations in 2016 due to government pressure.

Teachers are perfectly able to make judgements. Assessment is one of their core skills. Obviously, there is a tendency towards bias and optimism, particularly in a competitive education market and with inspection by performance, but this can be moderated out.

Just as with exams it requires seasoned professionals studying a sample script and agreeing a grade. Schools were closed on 20 March. That left sufficient time to establish an effective moderation system.

In the past teachers were trusted to run course work assessed systems and were supported with the training to make them effective. It was a part of our professional portfolio.

Dangerous Territory

But no. Instead the decision was taken to rely on artificial intelligence, to devise a system that would iron out human weakness. A system that neglected the individual in order to achieve a pre-determined profile. A system that had built into it the presumptions of its designers.

This is dangerous territory, to over-rule a professional judgement with an algorithm that can have no sensitivity to the performance of an individual. It is morally wrong.

Thankfully the ensuing outcry has prompted a political U-turn. But it has badly damaged the credibility of the system that is was supposed to protect.

Paul Grainger is Co-director of the Centre for Education and Work, UCL, and Co-Chair of the G20 Task Force on Education and Skills

Stuart Rimmer is Chief Executive Officer at East Coast College Group

[1] A call for ethics in the curriculum, Silvia Lanza Castelli and Paul Grainger, FE News (17 Aug 2020)

[2] Predicting A-level grades accurately ‘near-impossible task’ UCL (11 Aug 2020)

You may also be interested in these articles:

Register, Login or Login with your Social Media account:


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Newsroom Activity

FE News: The Future of Education News Channel had a status update on Twitter 10 hours 57 minutes ago

RT @FENews: NGWLive: Network Rail: NGWLive: Network Rail
View Original Tweet

FE News: The Future of Education News Channel had a status update on Twitter 15 hours 5 minutes ago

City of London Corporation provides Square Mile schoolchildren with food vouchers during half term break:…
View Original Tweet

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In May 2020, FE News had over 120,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page