Elbowed off the Pavement
For three days, A-level students took to the streets of London with the chant ‘Justice for the Working Class’, demonstrating in Whitehall against the downgrading by an algorithm of 40 per cent of their results. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to see their marks go down. On the third day the government performed a U-turn: the ‘centre assessment grades’ submitted by schools and colleges would now be honoured. Problem solved. Except it wasn’t.
Many students wanting to go to Russell Group universities will now secure a place at their first choice. Most privately educated students have already snapped up theirs. Of the students that lose out to them, not all will be able to afford to defer for a year. The lifting of the admissions cap means fewer students will miss out on a Russell Group place, but it also means other institutions may lose students, with economic implications not only for the universities and their workers but for the regions they serve. ‘It’s ominous,’ a colleague at a post-92 university told me. ‘Some smaller, newer universities may go bust. This will leave working-class students with nowhere to go. Some of them cannot afford to study away from home, some have caring responsibilities.’
So how did we get into this mess? The government wanted to shrink the number of university students before the pandemic. Universities have a role to play in increasing social equality, but they can also be an obstacle to it.
Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics (and a committed Tory), wasn’t worried about access. He made no secret of his view that the ‘brains of the nation lie in the higher of our classes’ (Essays in Eugenics, 1909). He was sure, he wrote, that the cleverest (which he understood to be the sons of eminent men) would find their way into the universities, and he was pleased that the majority would be ‘weeded away’ by the entrance requirements of intellectual and physical fitness. He suggested a ‘personal interview’ for the last few candidates, which would give appropriate ‘hereditary weight’ to family history. For women he thought there should be a stringent medical test, too, to assess their fertility and prepotency, as it was more difficult (because there was a smaller pool of candidates) to assess their athletic proficiency.
Galton was an advocate of white supremacy, imperialism and slavery, unlike his cousin, Charles Darwin, an abolitionist who made clear his increasing opposition to Galton’s views. Darwin came to attribute more and more to environment, urging in The Descent of Man (1871) against the intentional neglect of the vulnerable which he saw would lead to the loss of ‘the noblest part of our nature’. Galton waited till 1883, the year after Darwin died, to coin the term ‘eugenics’. ‘I do not join in the belief that Africa is our equal in brain or in heart,’ he wrote to the Times in 1857. And in 1873: ‘I should expect the large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages living under the nominal sovereignty of the Zanzibar, or Portugal, might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order-loving Chinese.’
Galton was big on grades. In Hereditary Genius (1869) he divided people up into classes, assigning capital letters to the ‘above average’ and lower-case letters to the ‘below average’, ranging from the ‘mediocre’ classes A and a (one in four people) to the exceptional (one in 79,000) classes G and g. The rare few above G or below g were class X or x (one in a million). He considered ‘classes E and F’ in Africa to be roughly the equivalent of ‘our C and D’, that ‘the average intellectual standard’ of the race ‘is some two grades below our own’ and that ‘their c is as low as our e’. He attached a monetary and eugenic value to members of the classes he graded. An average baby born to ‘the wife of an Essex labourer’ and living ‘in the ordinary way of his class’, factoring in maintenance and earnings over a life time, was, he reported, worth five pounds, while a child from a higher class would ‘be reckoned in thousands of pounds’. He thought children of this class could contribute to the nation’s net gain both biologically and economically.
On his blog and in his laborious 237-page ‘Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities’ (2013) Dominic Cummings expresses a commitment to genetic determinism, ranging, not always expertly, between disciplines. His writings are littered with references to eugenists, from Galton – who ‘concluded that talent in various fields was primarily genetic’ – to more recent advocates (though they deny they are eugenists) such as Robert Plomin and Stephen Hsu. The prime minister’s views, too, show continuity with Galton’s. ‘The problem is not that we were once in charge’ in Africa, Johnson wrote in the Spectator in 2002, ‘but that we are not in charge any more.’
The eugenic views of other government officials – from the foreign secretary to a briefly appointed Downing Street adviser, from the vice chair for youth (and MP for Mansfield) to a (briefly appointed) board member of the newly created Office for Students – have received media attention in recent years, as they have advocated for the sterilisation of the poor and the genetic screening of embryos for intelligence.
In ‘The Eugenic College of Kantsaywere’ (c.1910), an unpublished novel in which PG (‘passed in genetics’) degrees are awarded, Galton wrote that ‘all immigrants are more or less suspected.’ Cummings left his DfE post in 2014 and the following year became director of the Vote Leave campaign. ‘Immigration,’ he later remarked, ‘was a baseball bat that just needed picking up at the right time and in the right way.’
Cummings (in ‘Thoughts’) quotes Elliot Eisner’s view that ‘the good school ... does not diminish individual differences; it increases them. It raises the mean and increases the variance.’ But in the space of a paragraph Cummings shifts from ‘the gaps between rich and poor children’ to ‘gaps between those of different abilities’. With no clear distinction made between the two, poverty becomes conflated with low ability. This elision was central to Victorian eugenics. ‘It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality,’ Galton declared in Hereditary Genius. ‘The experiences of the nursery, the school, the University, and of professional careers, are a chain of proofs to the contrary.’
Cummings places the word equality in scare quotes, and quotes Nietzsche’s scorn for ‘the pygmy animal of equal rights and equal pretensions’. But equality is an ethical principle, the protecting of the vulnerable; it does not mean uniformity. In a more recent blog post, Cummings says that ‘over time the educated classes will continue to be dragged to more realistic views’ on ‘things like IQ and social mobility’. The only environmental factors he acknowledges are ‘non-shared’: ‘chemicals in utero’, for example. Teachers, home life and socioeconomic factors are all but expelled from Cummings’s biologistic vision of development. This is the world he moves in.
Cummings’s ‘Thoughts’ is peppered with references to algorithms. It’s easy to assume that algorithms are neutral and objective, an unbending set of rules exempt from complicating human interference. But neither science nor algorithms exist in a vacuum, and both can be put in the service of classist and racist agendas. What you extract from an algorithm depends on what you put in. The algorithmic adjustments to this year’s A-level grades – about which the Royal Statistical Society expressed repeated concerns from as early as April – appear to have been determined by a fateful combination of ideology and incompetence.
It has since come to light that the company that was contracted, without tender, to work with Ofqual on the algorithm is owned by long-term associates of Cummings and Michael Gove. Before the U-turn the same algorithm had been set to calculate GCSE results, with an even higher percentage of disadvantaged students predicted to be downgraded. A report from Teach First this week on GCSEs since 2017 shows that this group, for whom improvement can be the most rapid, has been persistently graded unfairly. The report calls for long-term funding for the most disadvantaged schools, to enable better teacher retention and smaller classes, along the lines found in private schools.
Cummings considers GCSE grades to be inflated, a view that not only does nothing to address the long-term attainment gap but deflects attention and resources from it. He argues that the skills expected of the most able A-levels students have ‘significantly declined’, while ‘private schools have continued to teach beyond A Levels’. He dismisses any suggestion that his predilection for nature over nurture (terms popularised by Galton) harms individuals, claiming that such technical terms as ‘heritability’ refer only to the variance in populations.
‘I never tried to “give my views on the science” as I don’t have “views”,’ he wrote last year, ignoring the basic tenets of the history and sociology of science. ‘All people like me’ – does he mean those with no scientific training? – ‘can try to do with science is summarise the state of knowledge in good faith.’ (No ‘views’, but ‘good faith’.) He dismisses ‘a story of causation in which, crudely, wealthy people buy better education and this translates into better exam and IQ scores. The science says this story is false.’
The story is not false (there’s plenty of science that supports it), and neither is it new. In Jude the Obscure (1895), Jude Fawley writes on the wall of the college that has rejected him: ‘I have understanding as well as you. I am not inferior to you.’ He uses a lump of chalk that he has for his day job as a manual labourer. ‘You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded,’ his girlfriend, Sue Bridehead, tells him; ‘a man with a passion for learning, but no money. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’ Sue, though ‘her intellect scintillated like a star,’ would not have been able to get a degree. The novel calls into question narrow and competitive biological understandings of kinship and family. ‘That excessive regard of parents for their own children, and their dislike of other people’s’ is ‘a mean exclusiveness’. ‘What does it matter, when you come to think of it, whether a child is yours by blood or not?’ All are ‘entitled to our general care’.
‘For the first time in English literature,’ the Idler reviewer of Hardy’s novel wrote, ‘the almost intolerable difficulties that beset the working class – the snares, the obstacles, the countless rejections and humiliations – receive adequate treatment.’ The resistance can be traced back further. In 1819, in an open letter to Malthus, the Radical MP and journalist William Cobbett called out the naturalisation of social inequality and injustice: ‘The law of nature bids a man not starve in the midst of plenty, and forbids his being punished for taking food wherever he can find it. Your law of nature is sitting at Westminster.’