Mirror Mirror on the wall. Who, is the fairest of them all?

Jessie AbrahamsDr Jessie Abrahams (Lecturer in Education and Social Justice, School of Education, University of Bristol)

As results time for the COVID cohort hits, and anxiety mounts for young people, the four nations of the UK have begun a worrying battle to prove that their system of allocated grades as a substitute for summer examinations is the fairest of them all. In reality- none of them are fair. As many academics have already exclaimed, they are all set up (much like our whole education system), in favour of white, middle (and upper) class pupils and families (see for example: Ingram, 2020).

On the 4th of August 2020, eyes were on Scotland as the first nation to release results. The outcomes were shocking, with almost one quarter of teacher estimates being adjusted by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) who used an algorithm to bring grades in line with schools’ historical performance. A measure purportedly intended to ensure ‘accuracy’, ‘fairness’ and ‘credibility’ in the system and something which will be imposed on results in all nations of the UK. The majority of the adjustments made by SQA (93%) were ‘downgrades’, with the remaining 7% being ‘upgrades’. In an unprecedented turn of events and following protesting by pupils, the Scottish Government made a U-turn, cancelling the downgrading of teacher estimates. However, all upgrades were upheld.

Why is it acceptable to push up grade estimates provided by teachers because an algorithm says that if you are lucky enough to attend a school which is top of the league table you would probably have done even better than your teachers think you are capable of? Do these pupils deserve higher grades than their peers in schools lower down the league table? Simply because their school has historically achieved better results than they are able to evidence right now? To me, this highlights that privilege is not up for question.

With this in mind, on 12th August 2020, the eve of the release of A Level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson claimed that he has done everything he can to ensure that the system of substitute examinations for the 2020 cohort is fair and promised that the rest of the UK will not follow Scotland’s lead in relying solely on teacher estimates. Instead of reflecting on the problems evident through the external moderation processes, in a last-minute scramble, policymakers decided that pupils in England would be allowed to use their ‘mock’ examination results if they were higher than teacher estimates.

This is problematic, with concerns being raised by headteachers and pupils across the nation who claim that this has made ‘a mockery of the system’ as mocks are not standardised tests nor taken by all pupils. Furthermore, the insinuation that this will increase fairness is misleading. This does nothing to remedy the inequalities likely to be exacerbated through upgrading or downgrading in line with schools’ historical performance.

The system was never designed to be fair. It was designed to ensure qualifications remain a ‘credible’ indicator to sort pupils into their respective ‘place’. In our neoliberal society governed by competitive individualism, education and qualifications function as a sorting mechanism, sifting pupils into their ‘place’ in society (Bowles and Gintis, 2011[1976]). Qualifications purportedly sort the ‘winners’ from the ‘losers’ in a ‘fair’ manner, using the myth of meritocracy to justify the system (the argument that those who are intelligent and work hard will be rewarded). But, in fact, Sociologists have continually argued that the sorting which takes place is much less about ‘intelligence’ and ‘hard work’ and much more about race and class (see for example Gilborn, 2008; Reay, 2017 and Abrahams, 2018).

When we think critically about what is actually required to keep our capitalist society functioning, it is not for the majority of young people to receive good grades. Rather, the system relies on hierarchy, on the assumption that many young people working at the margins, will fail to gain the necessary grades to follow the high aspirations they have been convinced that they should strive for. Whilst the meritocracy thesis will have you believe this is a fair process, what happens in reality is that the white middle-classes, equipped with the resources and opportunities to ensure their children do not fall through the gaps, become the winners. And this is what we are seeing unfold now.

As mentioned above, we already know that there are immense inequalities between schools in the UK. This is something which becomes concretised through league tables which harshly rank schools (and pupils) into a hierarchy positioning the ‘problem’ of educational outcome differentials as being with schools, teachers, or pupils themselves. But what is less discussed is that schools lower down the league table are often faced with distinct and challenging circumstances which are a direct result of structural poverty and institutional racism. Such schools are often working hard to support pupils and communities that, arguably, our education system was never intended to serve!

If our government are committed to social justice, then they must be committed to challenging the whole system of examinations and league tables and enable channels for downward social mobility. The fact that outcomes in Scotland were ‘upgraded’ based on schools’ historical performance, but not ‘downgraded’ is telling. We must now ask who is being upgraded? Is it the disadvantaged pupils who so desperately need a percentage point to scrape over a grade boundary which holds the gatekeeping potential for their futures? Or is it those more advantaged pupils who have had their higher grades made even higher? One question I would pose to policymakers is: If people never move down, how are people supposed to move up?

I have been speaking to teachers throughout this time, and what is clear to me is that they have worked their blood, sweat and tears into calculating grades using far more information, evidence and historical data than they are being given credit for. Whilst teacher bias is of course a huge concern, in fact, I would argue that the bigger problem here is the arrogance with which The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) (and other government agencies) have been given the power to be the gatekeepers of qualifications in such an unprecedented moment of crisis. The planned ‘adjustments’ which take account of a school’s previous performance are problematically re-enforcing league table restrictions. Forcing schools and pupils back into their place.

So, who is the fairest of them all? Arising out of a period of crisis caused by the COVID pandemic, humanity was offered an opportunity to do things differently, to attempt to re-envision our system to somewhat flatten hierarchies. Unfortunately, the nations’ leaders appear to have chosen mechanisms to ensure we ‘keep up appearances’ and strive for ‘credibility’ whilst perpetuating age-old inequalities which run through the veins of our system.

We must resist!


Abrahams, J. (2018) ‘Option blocks that block options: exploring inequalities in GCSE and A Level options in England’, British Journal of Sociology of Education. 39 (8): 1143-1159.

Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. 2011 [1976]. Schooling in capitalist America: educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Gilborn, D. (2008). Racism in education: coincidence or conspiracy? Oxon: Routledge.; Gilborn, 2008tedntion in this these to contribute towards this troubling discursive construction andal attainment, a lack on c

Reay, D. (2017). Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes. Bristol: Policy Press.