Caller explains how controversial A-level algorithm works, and why it caused problems

15 August 2020, 15:59

By Seán Hickey

This computer programmer phoned in to explain how the A-level algorithm works, and why it has led to widespread outrage.

Milo phoned to explain to Maajid Nawaz how the program used to generate results for the A-levels worked, in his view as a computer programming.

Maajid asked the caller "how can a student go from an A being predicted and being granted a U by the algorithm," which was the claim of some parents that phoned in to the show.

Milo explained that the algorithm only works off of the information that it is fed, so in this case it is the grades of students. In producing grades, the algorithm tries its best to keep outliers to a minimum. This, to Milo, is where the issue lies.

"If you now have one student or two students that are predicted triple A's, and all the other students are predicted C's, those two students with triple A's are going to skew the whole thing, so the distribution will be off kilter," he explained.

"If you have 100 people earning £35,000 to £40,000 a year and you come and put a billionaire in there," he used as an example, "it's going to skew the whole thing."

Milo admitted that there are other algorithms that wouldn't have downgraded people for outperforming their peers but "it takes a lot of money, it takes a lot of understanding," to come up with such a program.

The programmer told Maajid that the algorithm the government have come up with is an example of a "pay cheap now and pay for it later on," effort.

He assured Maajid that "algorithms don't think," and it is only working off of the information it has been given by the human that has programmed it.

"It doesn't have a greater data to go on, and that's just it."