On Car Parking & Qualifications

Darren McGarvey, award-winning author, commentator, rapper

What we must not forget is that the system of moderation was not some anomaly – it was an insight into education

– Darren McGarvey


Last month on Twitter, Darren McGarvey, rapper and author, re-entered the discussion about examinations in Scotland.  We were delighted to chat to Darren and get permission to use his thoughts and arguments from his Twitter thread in this blog.

While recognising the heat has gone out of last summer’s highly charged discussions about the effect of the SQA’s algorithm, Darren’s intervention last month is a timely reminder that what happened was not an unfortunate blip in the system but a window into the reality of the inequality that is embedded in all areas of Scottish Education.

Darren’s analogy of Scotland’s education system was of a car park with limited spaces, with a few spaces reserved for the ‘right’ people. The claim by John Swinney, DFM, that “the now binned algorithm was required to preserve the ‘credibility’ of the system, what he meant was that the system authenticates itself by producing inequality.”

The phrase ‘attainment gap’ also came under attack in Darren’s piece as a smokescreen for the range of opportunities “distributed within fixed parameters of social class”, arguing that there are quotas on the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged kids who can go to places in the elite professions. 

We can’t have too many kids from schemes becoming vets. We can’t have too many poor kids becoming lawyers or surgeons. The algorithm was designed to blindly distribute opportunity upward, irrespective of ability. That wasn’t an accident – it’s written into the economic DNA.”

Darren is saying that in many ways the current exam system is used as a gatekeeper to the professions to the benefit of middle-class pupils.

The now infamous algorithm was pre-set to distribute opportunity upward with little regards to ability or potential. Analysis of the data in the public domain by Barry Black clearly shows the correlation between teacher estimates being downgraded and socio-economic circumstances of the school. Furthermore, the research shows the algorithm’s bias against the socially deprived, by upgrading their estimates far less often than it upgraded the estimates for students in more advantaged circumstances.  

To further evidence this embedded inequality in the system, even when the u-turn came from John Swinney and the SQA, although all downgraded results were cancelled and reissued, increases in awards were not reversed.  As an (unintended?) consequence, those students who got better grades than their teachers estimated kept them and no prizes will be awarded for guessing the socio-economic circumstances prevalent in this process.  

Instead of being the great equaliser and the route out of poverty, education now seems the mainstay of maintaining inequalities in Scottish society.

In the responses to Darren’s thread, several people also pointed to the huge disparities in measures of health from area to area highlighting that the inequality gap (or chasm is possibly a better word) doesn’t only lie in education. 

It is clear that in McGarvey’s thread he is emphasising that social class is the key determinant in the ‘attainment gap’ and that far from closing the gap, schooling in Scotland not only does little to alleviate the impact of inequality but automatically reinforces and perpetuates it. Darren’s current BBC Scotland programme Class Wars is an insightful and uncomfortable look through the window into several aspects of Scottish society. In one episode he reflects on the events of summer 2020 and how the use of the algorithm shattered the dreams of many pupils, most of them from working class areas. It was clear that pupils from working class areas were twice as likely to have their marks downgraded than their middle class counterparts. After experiencing initial numbing shock and disappointment, some of them decided to fight back, most notably Erin Bleakley from the east end of Glasgow. Erin’s high profile from the demonstration she organised via Facebook had within a week seen not only an apology from the Education Secretary but a switch to basing results on teachers’ estimates. 

The uncomfortable feelings elicited by Class Wars comes from the perspective that we like to see Scotland as an egalitarian country with equal chances for all. Darren’s programme and the events of the summer of 2021 in our national examination system point to a different truth and reality. Many see, or would like to see, the Scottish education system as a meritocracy awarding talent, intelligence and hard work with of course pastoral and vocational safety nets for those who don’t climb the academic ladder. The reality is that we have more of a parentocracy, where parents use their economic and social capital to acquire cultural capital for their offspring. Therefore, examination success is no longer based solely on ability but on the ability to access the likes of a personal tutor and holiday revision classes.

The rhetoric is that things cannot go back to the way they were in our society before the pandemic, including in our education system. The challenge to us all with an interest in doing the best for our young people, is to turn that rhetoric into action and reality. What would the guiding principles be for an improved and fairer system? A few thoughts would include: a reduction in the weighting given to final examinations; the discontinuation of the algorithm; assessments which focus on more than recall ability and ability to write fast under pressure and a system which captures a wider range of skills and qualities. We would like to hear your views.

1 thought on “On Car Parking & Qualifications”

  1. PT of Frustration

    I was responsible for estimates for a large cohort, and have been for many years. I felt that it wasn’t the algorithm that introduced inequality: it was the exam itself. When you asked me to look at the evidence for Josh and Lauren, I could tell you that they could hit C standard in everything: I had seen them do it. That’s why every year, I estimate a C, and every year, they fail, not because of the algorithm, but because working class Josh and Lauren do less well in a high stakes exam than middle class Matthew and Ciara. The exam itself introduces inequality. The SQA has lots of data saying that I consistently submit overgenerous estimates for pupils at the C boundary, and that led to the algorithm downgrading them, but that’s because I always have evidence that they have all these skills and can do everything when they’re with me and my staff. In 2020, the scales fell from my eyes and I realised for the first time that I’m not overestimating; the exam is just a really bad way of figuring out what they can do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top