Is the algorithm working for us?

Exams, grades and fairness

16 June 2021
Zoom and live stream

Watch the full video on Youtube or listen to the podcast below.

In 2020 Covid closed 90 per cent of the world's schools. In the long list of harm caused by the pandemic, the disruption to the education of a generation may prove to be long lasting. One acute aspect of this was the difficulties countries faced in administering examinations. The UK and Ireland chose the unusual route of using co teacher assessments and predictions to estimate likely results. There was widespread agreement about the viability, even desirability, of the policy amongst education leaders before the event; and wholesale rejection by the people affected by it. There is much to learn from this.

The episode has highlighted the tension between meritocracy and examinations. The algorithm was rejected because it was intolerable that young people would have their futures determined by a prediction based on things such as which school they went to. Some were troubled by the extent to which some students would have done better than predicted. But others were equally troubled by the degree to which a child’s circumstances could account for how they would perform in exams. This year exams won’t be held because it would be unfair when children have had such different levels of access to education. But that leaves open the question of why they are fair in normal times, when pupils experience very different levels of educational support and the educational set backs that many children have suffered over the course of the pandemic will continue to affect them for years ahead.

These events undermine public trust in the fairness of exams. Many employers have similar concerns, some of whom are turning away from exam grades as an indicator of employability and are instead using their own assessments which they claim give them a better understanding of their candidates and support more diverse hiring. In the past, the temptation for politicians has been to try to diffuse these tensions by degrading the quality of educational assessment, allowing grades to inflate or adopting untrustworthy forms of assessment. Rather than allowing this to happen, we need an approach that improves and expands the range of information that young people can use to demonstrate their skills.

In this event, the former chair of Ofqual, Roger Taylor will talk about fairness and quality in education and how the current system needs to change. Former Children's Commissioner Anne Longfield OBE and Chief Executive of the REC, Neil Carberry will be responding to the comments. The event will be chaired by CPP's director Charlotte Alldritt.

Key questions will include: How can we create an education and assessment system that operates as a driver of social mobility? Or do we have unfair expectations about the degree to which education can tackle wider social and economic inequalities? How can the Department for Education ensure learning and assessment enhance children’s opportunities and bridge young people’s skills and potential with employers? In what ways can employers be further involved in these policies and in practice? How can we align the needs of measuring what a young person can do and assessing their potential whilst ensuring education standards? What is the role of data and digital technology in ensuring that robust assessment complements a meritocratic education system?

This event will take place as a Zoom webinar and via live streaming. Those joining via Zoom will be able to ask questions via the Q&A function. Those who aren't will be able to submit questions in advance via Facebook and Twitter using #CPPeducation.

Roger Taylor

Former chair of Ofqual

Roger Taylor has worked in regulation in health, education and criminal justice and is the former chair of Ofqual. He co-founded Dr Foster, which pioneered the use of public data to monitor healthcare quality. He has published on data ethics and transparency.

Anne Longfield OBE

Former Children's Commissioner

Anne Longfield has spent the last three decades working to improve the life chances of children, particularly the most vulnerable. From March 2015 to February 2021, she was Children’s Commissioner for England and previously led a national children’s charity.

Anne remains a passionate champion for children, influencing and shaping the national debate and policy agenda for children and their families. She spent many years campaigning for better childcare, often at a time when many saw the issue as obscure or niche.

As Children’s Commissioner, Anne spent six years championing the rights and interests of children with those in power who make decisions about children’s lives, acting as children’s ‘eyes and ears’ in the corridors of power in Whitehall and Westminster.

During the Covid-19 pandemic she ensured that children’s experiences were heard, urging the Government to make sure that schools were the last to close and the first to open. She also shone a light on the realities for those children who slipped from view, living in homes with hidden harms, or without the technology to learn online, and those struggling with mental health difficulties. In her final speech as Commissioner in February 2021, she warned that the Government machine has an institutional bias against children and proposed a Covid Covenant to repay children for the sacrifices they have made during the pandemic.

Over recent years Anne has worked on issues affecting children’s wellbeing, putting forward proposals that give children more power over their digital lives and publishing regular research on the experiences of children in care. She has seen many of her proposals put into place by Governments.

Anne appears regularly in print and on broadcast media arguing the case for a better deal for children and families. She was born in Yorkshire, where she lives when she is not in London.

Neil Carberry

Chief Executive of the REC

Neil Carberry was appointed as Chief Executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation in June 2018 having been managing director at the Confederation of British Industry, leading the CBI’s work on the labour market, skills, energy and infrastructure. In 1999, Neil began his career in recruitment working for executive search firm Fraser Watson before doing a post-graduate degree in Human Resources at the London School of Economics and joining the CBI in 2004. He is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Fellow of the RSA. He is a member of the council of the conciliation service ACAS and of the Low Pay Commission where he helps guide pay policy in the UK. He is also on the board of the World Employment Confederation and a primary academy trust in Oxfordshire.

Charlotte Alldritt (Chair)


Charlotte Alldritt is Director of the Centre for Progressive Policy. Previously Charlotte was Director of Public Services and Communities at the RSA, where she also ran the Inclusive Growth Commission – chaired by Stephanie Flanders – and City Growth Commission – chaired by Lord Jim O’Neill. Before joining the RSA, Charlotte was a Senior Policy Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, working on immigration, energy and housing. She is an advisor to Power to Change, New Philanthropy Capital, the Civic University Network and an external member of the APPG for Left Behind Neighbourhoods. Charlotte also advises the OECD on Inclusive Growth Financing, is a member of the SIPHER Inclusive Economy Advisory Group at the University of Sheffield and is a member of the Research in Practice Partnership Board.