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  • Hannah McHugh

Has the A-level fiasco undermined fair equality of opportunity?


Disruption and COVID-19 have become seemingly synonymous in so many aspects of our lives this year. The turmoil caused by the disrupted A-level process has attracted particular prominence in recent weeks. UK teenagers, unable to sit exams in 2020, were initially awarded grades calculated by an algorithm designed to prevent grade inflation. The algorithm in effect replicated the results of previous years, but brought with it a serious risk of disadvantage for talented students in schools that have a history of low results. Unsurprisingly, students and citizens called out the injustice this brought about after data indicated that the algorithm meant that privileged students enjoyed higher grades than those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Following the government’s U-turn, students have instead been awarded their teacher-predicted grades. However, in contrast to initial aims, this has led to a situation in which grades no longer track the trends of previous years - with strikingly higher results being awarded across the board (in some A-level subjects, more than half of students have been awarded A*s and As). Whilst we may think this a better outcome than imposing unfair disadvantages on some students, this nonetheless leaves us with a perception of undue advantage having been awarded to some students.

Key to this turbulent series of events, has been talk of advantages and disadvantages, and how these should be taken into consideration or controlled for. Young adults entering the job market or competing for university places do so on the basis of these results. Most of us believe then that A-levels must be fairly awarded, if we wish to say that those students can enjoy fair assessment when they enter the university/job market. Debate has centred on ensuring that no student misses out on any opportunity that they deserve access to due to factors beyond their control. Implicit then in this reasoning, is the question: what is required to ensure these students have fair equality of opportunity?

This question reflects a central and longstanding debate amongst political theorists. Most liberal egalitarians argue that fair equality of opportunity cannot be realised unless advantages and disadvantages suffered during childhood are analysed and compensated for. They argue that the morally arbitrary differences in upbringing ought to be disregarded and a level-playing field created amongst persons in order that their future level of success may be determined on a meritocratic basis, and unhindered by unjustified (dis)advantages.

Many of us focus on the moment of receiving A-level results as crucial in young adults lives. Not only as it reflects their efforts to date, but because of the consequences it will have on their futures. The grades received are the basis upon which young adults gain access to opportunities; not just those immediate opportunities in the form of first-job or university applications, but all of the subsequent opportunities that are (un)available as a result of these first steps. By ensuring A-levels are based on merit, we believe we are recognising students in a fair way and giving them access to opportunities on this basis. Compensation for (dis)advantages at age 18 amounts to a ‘moment of equal opportunity’, following which recruiting employers are generally not expected to take into account how candidates attained their skills.

Whether or not our society ought to orient its approach to equality of opportunity around such a moment of equality is widely contested. Also, whether A-levels are adequate as a means of compensating (dis)advantages is also unclear. Nonetheless, the idea that this moment is of key importance for fair access to opportunities clearly permeates our public consciousness; the reaction to evidence of unfairly determined A-level results was so great it has led the government to a series of U-turns. Despite this policy change, we have found ourselves in a position where we cannot say with certainty that the results awarded do in fact accurately reflect merit, or fairly equalise past advantages and disadvantages – consider for instance how those leaving school in 2019 will have comparatively lower marks than those in 2020, and later in life will compete for the same jobs.

Whilst I do not intend here to adjudicate the dispute as to whether a moment of equality approach should be favoured in general, I do wish to highlight that the impact of COVID-19 on today’s school leavers may undermine the validity of the moment of equality that we may ordinarily expect young adults to experience. This calls into question, from the perspective of justice, the legitimacy of any subsequent (dis)advantages that flow from this year’s distorted A-level process. This debacle may provide reasons to adopt a more forward-looking and continuous approach to equality of opportunity, which advocates different principles that ought to apply throughout a person’s life.

What is the risk of undermining the moment of equality?

A first question is: how significant might a flawed moment of equality be on an individual’s future? Of course, in most cases, it is impossible to measure the impact of a particular decision such as issuance of a university place, given the wide range of path dependent counterfactuals that may flow from any particular point in time. Nonetheless, we can be sure that cumulative inequality begins from such pertinent moments as A-level results. To show how cumulative inequality can follow any single advantage, Clare Chambers introduces a thought-provoking scenario[1]. She asks that we imagine Jeremy and Jason – two students of similar family backgrounds, similar education and similar merit (in the Rawlsian sense, where merit means talent plus effort plus inclination) at 18 years old. Jeremy is accepted to Oxford over Jason, both cannot be selected due to the scarcity of places. Both students achieve 2:1 degrees at their respective institutions. After graduation, employers favour Jeremy. Not because of an old boy network, but because they believe Oxford selects the best candidates and provides a better education. Indeed, they may have well founded ideas that culture means students develop important skills such as confidence and initiative. Oxford graduates are more likely to have qualities which legitimately and genuinely make them better employees. Jeremy gets a top graduate job at a leading company, whilst Jason takes a less prestigious role. Both work equally hard, however, Jeremy’s job develops his skills quickly and offers more opportunities for growth. In five years, each applies for a more senior position at another company. By this stage Jeremy is the far better candidate. The process repeats over the course of their lives. By retirement, Jeremy has a much higher position in their industry and has earned much more money.

If you subscribe to the idea that we ought to have a moment of equal opportunity (in this case, at the moment of A-level results), and you believe that the decision to award Jeremy the Oxford place was made in accordance with this, then this cumulative inequality will not appear unjust to you. However, many others will have lingering doubts: can this eventual and significant disparity in the lives of Jeremy and Jason really be justified on the basis of their merit at aged 18? Some, therefore, argue that to select only one moment in a person’s life at which unfair (dis)advantages is arbitrary. Why not also focus on the many further instances in which (dis)advantages could be equalised – at all subsequent job interviews, for instance.

In order to consider this debate between whether equality of opportunity requires continual reapplication in an individual’s life, first it is helpful to briefly consider how we might approach fairly ‘equalising’ candidates. If we believe decisions should be meritocratic, then we ought to be clear as to what counts as merit, and what doesn’t. Or, in the instance of A-levels, on what basis we should award particular grades to students?

What counts as merit?

Equality of opportunity appeals because it promises to hold people properly responsible for how well their lives are going. It’s a meritocratic concept, but, what should we say is attributable to merit? It is common to begin from the Rawlsian premise that equal access to opportunities requires discounting any morally arbitrary factors from decisions regarding who ought to be awarded an opportunity[2]. A-levels are, in this same vain, organised so as to give a universalised standard to each student - based upon their efforts and talents – against which opportunities can be fairly distributed.

In determining which factors are or are not morally arbitrary, we must distil the various types of merit that particular students or candidates may have. When considering a candidate for university, the admissions office will receive a profile of a student whose skills arise from various causes. These include: natural endowments (the talents we have innately from birth); particular skills that result from effort (for example, developed through practice of a particular discipline, or from time spent on homework); and social endowments which have enhanced our skills (such as an established network linked to having attended a notable school, or the impact of having parents who read regularly to their children at a young age). There is no obvious answer as to which of these meritocratic factors could we call morally arbitrary, given they all contribute to the genuine skills of a candidate.

Some may argue that only the results of effort ought to be considered when awarding fair grades – and that even natural talent ought to be disregarded given that such talents are awarded on the basis of a gene-pool lottery. Others may take the view that only social endowments are arbitrary and should be compensated for. Whilst I don’t take a view here on which factors ought to be ‘equalised’, this list of ways in which persons can be (dis)advantaged, together with the idea of cumulative disadvantage, points towards a further question. If we think that some forms of merit are morally arbitrary, why do we only compensate for these unfair (dis)advantages at one moment of people’s lives? It is also true that, for instance, social endowments continue to accrue past the age of 18, as Chambers makes clear in the example of Jeremy and Jason. We may ask then: if these factors are arbitrary, why only compensate for them at one moment of equality when A-level results are awarded?

What is the alternative to the moment of equality?

Many support this moment of equality approach for practical reasons. Meritocratic views focus primarily on how decisions are to be made regarding the allocation of social positions (jobs, promotions, and scarce educational or training places). Requiring employers to eliminate some forms of merit from their reasoning is not only demanding, but some argue it leads to genuinely poorer candidates occupying positions, and thus ‘levelling-down’ professional organisations. (Note however, that this is an argument for efficiency, not for equality. One might favour sacrificing equality or justice for efficiency, but it is worth having conceptual clarity on when and why this decision is taken).

A more continuous approach to equality of opportunity would seek to disregard arbitrary factors not only at one moment in a person’s life (say, at 18), but to do this at many subsequent moments in one’s life. Critics of the moment of equality point out that it is an explicitly backwards looking notion. Rawls himself states that ‘fairness depends on underlying social conditions, such as fair opportunity, extending backward in time’[3]. Yet, the notion of cumulative inequality shows us that there are forward flowing future effects that arise from the distribution of opportunities such as university places.

One strategy for building equality of opportunity into our society would be to enact legislation which restricts the criteria employers may use when recruiting. Already now, most of us endorse this strategy to ensure non-discrimination. Factors such as race or gender are thought imperative to exclude from employer decision-making, as they are considered morally arbitrary. It’s not then implausible that employers may be asked to exclude other factors from their assessment. Some have, for example, advocated a points-based system, whereby employers would add or subtract points for different advantages or disadvantages. A continuous approach to fair equality of opportunity would also bring with it additional positive demands. It would require higher expenditure on adult education, in-job training and other supports for candidates who arrive in their role from a disadvantaged position. Employers may have to appoint candidates who, in some instances, do lack the skills of their competitors who have enjoyed cumulative advantages through their lives.

It is true then that there are practical and efficiency arguments against continuous application of principles of equality of opportunity. But notice: it is not evident that these reasons relate to justice. Why, if we want to achieve fair equality of opportunity, ought cumulative disadvantages be considered legitimate based upon there having been one moment of equality at age 18?

It is not possible in the confines of this post to give truly fair and due consideration to either position; that which favours the moment of equality, nor that which advocates a more continuous approach. In truth, both suffer and share some severe limitations: it would be extremely difficult for anyone accurately to judge which portion of an individual’s ability results from merit and which from class or background at any given time – whether that is assessed once at the time of A-level results, or many times throughout a person’s life. Not only is the difficulty of assessing merit a perennial problem, but also we face the fact that in many instances there will plainly be several candidates with equal merit competing for scarce opportunities. Neither view, therefore, can claim to be sufficient for realising fair equality of opportunity. But, in building our public policy, we can draw on this debate to determine to what extent we should favour an approach.

What has COVID-19 meant for equality of opportunity?

Key to any policy discussion in 2020 is the impact of COVID-19. Given that this year, we have such strong reasons to believe the moment of equality was distorted, we might ask if we have any legitimate justice-based reasons to rely on there having been a moment of equality. It seems less tenable that we can say students have enjoyed fair equality of opportunity in the face of such distorted results. Even if we would prefer to rely on one equalising point in time at which to do justice by our fellow citizens, the moment we ordinarily rely upon seems to have been so corrupted by circumstance that our younger generation might have lost out of their entitlement to equality of opportunity now for a lifetime.

There are many ways that the now inflated results may lead to difficulties in distributing equal opportunities. The oversupply of successful candidates will only increase pressure on the number of places available at elite universities and in competitive jobs. Universities continue to have scarce places and will have to award these to only a portion of equally well graded school-leavers. Ought the subsequent chains of inequality be considered fair, when the process has not favoured those of greater merit, but awarded places in a fashion more akin to a lottery? Also, many will have attained their grades through incomparable processes. Some students who have been dissatisfied by their predicted results, will sit exams in the autumn. Ought we consider an A* awarded on the basis of an exam equivalent in merit to that awarded on the basis of a prediction?

We have strong reasons to see that application of principles of fair equality of opportunity have been greatly undermined this year. If we accept that this means there has been no fair moment of equality, and we wish to offer equality of opportunity to all, then there are reasons to support a society which analyses and compensates for (dis)advantages continually.

Of course, the long-term effects of COVID-19 are so unclear in so many areas. The impact on our working lives and culture has already been dramatic. One lesson that has emerged from this crisis, is that sometimes economic efficiency must be sacrificed for reasons of justice. Changing our approach to equality of opportunity may mean overlooking the value in the cumulative merit of advantaged candidates in favour of those who have been disadvantaged. This may bear a cost to efficiency. But given the skewed and distorted effect the pandemic has had on the ordinary moment of equality, it seems we must reorient our approach as a society if we are to avoid depriving young people of fair equality of opportunity in their lifetime.

[1] Clare Chambers. "Each Outcome Is Another Opportunity: Problems with the Moment of Equal Opportunity." Politics, Philosophy & Economics 8.4 (2009): p. 374-400. [2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 72-73. [3] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 267.

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©2020 by Hannah McHugh