Press Release: Ex head of Ofqual argues failure to learn lessons of 2020 algorithm ‘debacle’ risks unfairness for generations to come

14 June 2021

4 minute read

  • Exam debacle of 2020 reflected poor policy making rather than a malfunctioning algorithm, argues Taylor in a new report for Centre for Progressive Policy.
  • Algorithms, when used well, are not the enemy, and can help to support fairer recruitment and admissions policies and increase social mobility.
  • Taylor uses the lessons of 2020 to indicate how our assessment system can better meet the needs of students, employers, and the government, today and in the future.

Roger Taylor, ex-head of Ofqual, has today spoken for the first time since the exam results debacle of 2020. Ofqual’s algorithm was labelled racist and classist and prompted huge public backlash. In a new report commissioned by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP), Taylor explains that the algorithm was not biased, and it did what it was asked to do. What it was asked to do was not fair.

Reflecting on the debacle of 2020, Roger Taylor said: “The failures of 2020 were not caused by the algorithm malfunctioning. The error was what we asked the algorithm to do. It was the human decision making that failed. Too little importance was put on the experience of the students and their justified expectations of what was fair, and too much weight was put on trying to allow the administration of education to carry on as normal."

The public rhetoric blaming the algorithm suggests that the issue was out of human control, an arbitrary ‘computer says no’ response to people’s complex and nuanced realities. Taylor’s paper shows how algorithms and data are in fact delivering more nuanced recruitment decisions and supporting diverse recruitment into elite jobs.

Charlotte Alldritt, Director at the Centre for Progressive Policy, said: “Qualifications play a crucial role in determining a child’s employment opportunities and earnings in later life, and too many children’s choices are limited by poor performance in exams, which our research has demonstrated is influenced by where they live and their family background. CPP is building on Roger Taylor’s reflections to better understand attainment gaps in this country, and how to address these, with the aim of developing an education system that enables all young people to thrive.”

Taylor notes that the growth of AI and algorithms in recruitment systems poses a challenge to the traditional role of qualifications; to incentivise high quality learning and enable social mobility. It is Taylor’s view that the system needs to adapt in the face of the rise of data driven technologies in recruitment, and ensure they are fit to support the needs of citizens and employers in the coming age of AI.

The Centre for Progressive Policy is looking to build on Taylor’s lessons from 2020, supplemented by their own research into regional attainment gaps across the country, to deliver policy recommendations around how we can deliver a system that works for everyone. The Centre for Progressive Policy is holding their first panel discussion on the education system on Wednesday, 16 June.


Roger Taylor’s paper Is the algorithm working for us? examines the cancellation of 2020 public examinations during the coronavirus pandemic and offers lessons for the future: see full paper here.

About CPP

  • The report can be found here. For enquiries, please contact Thomas Hauschildt,
  • Roger Taylor will talk about this publication at a event hosted by CPP on Wednesday, 16 June 2021.
  • The Centre for Progressive Policy is a think tank committed to making inclusive economic growth a reality. By working with national and local partners, our aim is to devise effective, pragmatic policy solutions to drive productivity and shared prosperity in the UK. Inclusive growth is one of the most urgent questions facing advanced economies where stagnant real wages are squeezing living standards and wealth is increasingly concentrated. CPP believes that a new approach to growth is needed, harnessing the best of central and local government to shape the national economic environment and build on the assets and opportunities of place. The Centre for Progressive Policy is funded by Lord Sainsbury and hosts the Inclusive Growth Network.