At last, Josiah Elleston-Burrell’s last day at school. It was 13 August 2020, a Thursday in the middle of a dismal pandemic-struck summer, and Elleston-Burrell had returned to St Joseph’s College in Croydon for one final visit, to collect his A-level grades. Tall and serene, well known on campus for wearing clothes of his own design, Elleston-Burrell had on a pale grey top that he’d customised with flecks of green and pink dye, his Nikes tactfully coordinated. At 19, he was one of the oldest pupils enrolled at St Joseph’s, such a veteran of this south London state school that younger kids sometimes swerved towards him in the corridors to reach out their fists in mute respect. Today, he took a shortcut into school, avoiding the crowds and walking up a service road that snaked between the chapel and a sports pitch. He was eager to be in and out quickly, the sooner to end a stalled career as a schoolboy and get under way on everything else – his uni years, job years, whatever life held next.
It was an odd time for young people coming to the end of their secondary-school educations. Exams had been cancelled because of Covid-19. All across England, a new scheme of judging, grading and sorting 2020’s school leavers had been rigged up in replacement. Details of the scheme were opaque. All Elleston-Burrell knew was that he had to go to an upstairs corridor in the maths department to collect an envelope containing his grades. He hurried across the playground.
After eight years, the campus was as familiar to him as any place on Earth; on just about every inch of the Clarks- and Kickers-scuffed floors was some echo or reminder of his halting coming of age. He passed a patch of yard where he’d once lined up as an 11-year-old newbie, a quick study when it came to the codes and fashions of his new school, its break-time blackjack, the BlackBerry flirting with girls met at bus stops (there being none at St Joseph’s till the sixth form). Elleston-Burrell was 12 or 13, he remembered, when he developed an eye for fashion, Windsor-knotting his burgundy tie and turning out for PE with one of his trouser legs rolled up, “to stand out, y’know?” He was 14 and spending a lot of time in the art block when he decided with all the casual abruptness of a young person sensing their own potential that he would become an architect one day. At 15, flourishing academically as well as artistically, his face was enlarged to the size of a bin lid and used in a poster ad for St Joseph’s. He still received messages from friends saying they’d seen him smiling on the sides of buses in Streatham or Tooting.
Off the playground, Elleston-Burrell entered the maths department, clattering in through a fire door and climbing a musty stairwell towards the second floor. He was 17, he remembered, when he found out that his teachers reckoned him capable of high grades in his final exams – three As, they predicted, one each in art, mandarin and maths. A top university in London, UCL, offered him a place to study architecture as long as he could finish school with at least three Bs. But when those final exams came, in summer 2019, Elleston-Burrell had a disaster, panicking over the phrasing of some of the questions. Though he was later diagnosed with dyslexia, which may have added to his confusion, it was too late to do anything about his grades that year. He got the expected A in art, but a disappointing B in mandarin and a shattering U – an outright fail – in maths. His place at university went to somebody else in 2019.
In this way, thoroughly and brutally, end-of-school exams have returned the supreme judgment on a young person’s education for at least a century. Exams are our attempt to sum up whole teenagehoods and render them as manageable labels – AAA, ACE, AAC. After the 2019 exams, Elleston-Burrell had been labelled ABU. He was certain he could still be AAA. And so, taking a breath, taking his smart St Joseph’s trousers back out of the cupboard come September, he had tried again – returning to the school he’d just left, repeating parts of his final year, coolly explaining to any younger pupils who drifted towards him, “I’m here. I’m back. I’m just redoing some exams.”
Those exams never took place. Schools were shut in March 2020, the announcement made hours before Elleston-Burrell’s 19th birthday. It was a crappy gift, because he’d been flying through practice papers and was relishing the prospect of another shot at his maths and his mandarin. Again, in 2020, he had an offer of a place at UCL. Again it was conditional on him getting at least three Bs. Elleston-Burrell presumed that whatever had been rigged up in replacement for 2020’s exams – people were talking about an algorithm – would see the specifics of his case, register his efforts and sacrifices, judge him as a capable young man and an architect-to-be.
Now he hustled along the upstairs corridor and received his envelope from a school administrator. Ducking into a doorway for privacy, he tore at the seal.
I first met Elleston-Burrell two years earlier, when he was 17. At the time I was researching a story about young men and masculinity, and he stood out a mile because he was the only boy to answer my questions about gender equality with a female perspective in mind. “I see my mum work extremely hard,” he told me. “I’ve got two younger sisters, I see what they go through … Personally? I feel if you work hard, if you’re deserving, there shouldn’t be a cap. Nothing should be limited.” Intuitively, he seemed to see through my personal questions to address a larger picture. “I live in Croydon,” he said at one point, laughing quietly, “so that probably says a lot to you.” Croydon was often in the news at the time because of rates in youth violence there. “I’m Black British. Christian. I paint. I draw. I’m into architecture. Just trying to succeed.”
The bit about architecture turned out to be an understatement. Elleston-Burrell had completed an out-of-hours course for teenagers at UCL’s architecture school, and it had convinced him beyond a doubt that he had a calling in life. He knew exactly where he wanted to train, too. When he had his admissions interview at UCL in late 2018 he was nervous, but afterwards one of the tutors helped carry out his portfolio of artwork, and this was interpreted as a good omen. He could hardly bring himself to open the email from UCL’s admissions office when it came in May 2019. He was on the sofa at home. His mother, Rhianne, was there, too.
“Mum? I bet it’s a no.”
“Why are you being negative? Be positive.”
“Mum? I got an offer.”
“I told you. I told you.”
We stayed in touch after that. I was curious what would happen to this ambitious, dead-set young man, and we met up several times in 2019, usually before he began a shift at the Waitrose supermarket where he worked. One day, just off the Croydon train, Elleston-Burrell confessed to a daydream: switching platforms instead and carrying on into London in the direction of UCL’s architecture building. He could see the backpack he would carry. His outfit. The dangling lanyard with his shiny undergraduate ID.
On results day in August 2019 – “crunch time”, he had been calling it – he woke early, logged on to a special admissions page online, and learned about his great failure in maths. He recognised that the architecture dream was over, at least for a year, and his despair was so acute that, finally down for breakfast that morning, he couldn’t find the words to tell his mum. So he faked ignorance instead, going through the whole agonising performance of logging on and finding out another time.
There would be intervals of speechless despair throughout the Groundhog Year that followed. Upbeat periods, too. Sometimes, when I met up with Elleston-Burrell, he was optimistic about his decision to put adulthood on hold to chase his dream. Other times, after he’d been with friends who were out in the world, off studying in party towns or already with full-time jobs and salaries, he second-guessed himself.
In December 2019, he invited me to St Joseph’s, leading me on a tour of the campus he’d got to know so well since he was 11 years old. He pointed out the sites of general interest, like the exact spot in the canteen queue where younger students were most vulnerable to “olders” pushing in, or the big bins that people used to climb over direct from the car showroom next door whenever they were running late. He showed me a few more personal landmarks, too. The steel locker out of which he’d once had a beloved jacket stolen. The square of asphalt where he’d had his first-ever (and last-ever) fist fight. The staff meeting room where there was an enlarged photograph of him, aged 13, a model student with waves in his hair, smiling warmly at a textbook.
Our tour ended in the art department – Elleston-Burrell’s most treasured place, he said. On the walls there were several of his paintings, including a portrait of his mum, and a self-portrait in which he had his eyes squeezed shut with pleasure as he ate a piece of mango. There was also a third painting, an obscure work in black and red that he had made in tribute to an older cousin called Miguel. When we turned through the pages of an accompanying sketchbook we came across a note that said: “During the course of this book my cousin was robbed and killed.” Elleston-Burrell rubbed his head. It had been hard, he said, hearing the news in the middle of a school term. He hadn’t wanted to do much after the funeral except sit and paint. Even so, he didn’t want to offer excuses for his poor showing in the 2019 exams. He was similarly loth to dwell on his dyslexia diagnosis. “Sit down, be humble” – that was his way. He had written it in his sketchbook along with other scribbled maxims and notes-to-self: “Build accurately”, “No success without failure”.
In a bid to bring up his maths grade to at least a B, crucial to his goal of studying architecture at UCL, Elleston-Burrell had hired an expensive private tutor that year. Relatives and elders from his church were clubbing together to cover half the cost. He paid his share by taking on extra supermarket work. When exams were scrapped in March 2020, he was already on the hook for about a grand; so he put down his textbooks and accepted any overtime shifts he was offered, covering for colleagues too ill or anxious to attend during the pandemic’s first wave. This was a time when the public stood to attention on Thursday nights to applaud frontline workers. Vogue put a teenage Waitrose employee on its cover. There was a feeling in the air that young people Elleston-Burrell’s age, with looks and stories and postcodes similar to his, were not to be reflexively patronised or demonised, instead maybe celebrated. Maybe rewarded.
Kids he knew were nervous about a government algorithm that would mysteriously decide everybody’s grades in lieu of exams, but Elleston-Burrell told himself not to worry. He reckoned he had done right by the world, in a difficult 2020, and he had reasonable hopes the world would do right by him. On the morning of 13 August, he woke early again, prayed, and told the mirror: “I’ll get into my uni today ’cos I worked for it.” He imagined this algorithm would pick him out as an A student, though he could live with Bs, as long as he still got on to his architecture course. When he got to school, and got upstairs, he opened his envelope and shook out a page of grades. He stared for a while and then he folded up the page.
A for art, C for mandarin, E for maths, the algorithm reckoned. It was not enough. Not even close.
The algorithm was conceived 100 miles north-west of Croydon, at the Coventry headquarters of Ofqual, the English exam regulator. Ofqual is an organisation made up of politically neutral civil servants who are empowered, encouraged and often as not hobbled in their work by government ministers. Staff there, including the chief, a floppy-haired executive called Roger Taylor, were initially queasy about using an algorithm on such a grand scale. Could they really try to simulate make-or-break grades for students who’d been pulled out of school without warning, two-thirds through an academic year? At first Taylor suggested other choices, including some sort of certificate to replace traditional grades, but ministers in Boris Johnson’s government ignored the idea. The algorithm plan was announced by Johnson’s education minister, Gavin Williamson, on 18 March. Ofqual spent the next two months toying with possibilities.
It came up with 11 candidate algorithms, labelled Approach-1 through Approach-11, ranged next to each other for consideration like prototype rockets. Approach-10 fell away first. Approach-3 had a genuine shot, as did Approach-1. These algorithms were intelligent guessers, the gist of their work familiar to racetrack patrons, as past form, judgment by eye and other looser assumptions were blended and sieved for insight. Approach-1 was reckoned the most accurate of the lot. By the end of May it had the nod.
In order for Approach-1 to function, it needed to be fed data. Some of this data could be drawn from Ofqual’s own historical records – for instance, how well a school had performed in exams in previous years – and some data would have to be generated more speculatively. Teachers around the country were asked to predict what grades their students might have secured if exams had gone ahead. They were also asked to make lists that ranked students against each other by subject. The projected grades and rankings reached Ofqual in mid-June. Because most teachers were expected to be generous, and a minority to be Scroogier than the rest, a failsafe was built into Approach-1 that would adjust the incoming grades up or down based on historical precedent. For instance, did a school tend to get about 10 As in maths a year? And had its teachers projected 12 As for 2020? Well, Approach-1 might suggest, the school’s 10 highest-ranked students in maths could have their As. But students number 11 and 12 would find they were Bs. They might even find they were Cs, if their school by some historical quirk did not typically secure Bs.
If this seems worrisome written down, it perhaps inspired more confidence when accompanied by reassuring graphs, hundreds of which were produced by Ofqual in its planning and testing phase: bell curves, spiky histograms, constellation-like scatter plots veined with blue and orange lines. Ofqual already employed statisticians and data scientists because, even in non-pandemic years, it used algorithms to regulate exam grades. Algorithms helped knock out regional inconsistencies. They helped flatten year-on-year inflation. In all sectors, in all parts of life, such problem-solving computer models steer important human matters, influencing what interest rates we’re offered, how long we’ll wait for hip surgery, when’s ideal for the next Justin Bieber album to drop. Before 2020, Ofqual’s algorithms did not draw much public curiosity, let alone criticism. In the summer of 2020, Approach-1 had the support of teaching unions. The governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plotting with their own national exam regulators, had come up with roughly similar algorithms.
By the middle of June, with two months to go until grades were due in students’ hands, all the necessary data was in. At Ofqual, Roger Taylor and his staff studied the grades the algorithm spat out. It seemed as if fairness was being maintained. The grades were not unduly high or low compared with other years. Considered broadly, students from disadvantaged backgrounds were on course to do slightly better in 2020 than they had in 2019. Approach-1 did create a small proportion of anomalous results, less than a quarter of 1%, which gave Ofqual pause. Bright students in historically low-achieving schools were tumbling, sometimes in great, cliff-edge drops of two or three grades, because of institutional records they had nothing to do with. As documents released by the organisation show, Ofqual discussed the problem but were unable to find a solution. (Roger Taylor did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)
As late as 7 August, Ofqual was concerned enough about the anomalies to send a memo to Boris Johnson’s office, noting “the risks of disadvantage to outlier students”. The public was not informed of this risk and in fact, when Ofqual published a summary of its efforts the following week, to accompany the public release of the Approach-1 grades, Taylor struck a tough, even bolshie note: “Some students may think that, had they taken their exams, they would have achieved higher grades. We will never know.”
Come the morning of 13 August, there were students, thousands, disinclined to leave the matter as vague as all that. The collapse of confidence in what Ofqual and the government had done was instant. At Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, vice-principal Sammy Wright moved between students who were trading pages of grades, stunned. “I tend to be quite positive about things,” said Wright, “but this was a shitshow. All the teachers I know were off-the-map angry, furious on behalf of the kids.” At Spires Academy in Oxford, not historically a high-performer in exams, teachers said they found it especially difficult to console the “outliers” in the school. Kate Clanchy, on the English staff, told me about her best student, projected to receive the highest possible grade, an A*, but knocked down by algorithm to a C. “She deeply believed she was rubbish,” said Clanchy. “We had tried all year to demonstrate to her she was not rubbish. Yet here was the system insisting: ‘We know what you are.’”
There would be postmortem disagreements as to whether the algorithm helped or hindered students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Because of a limitation in Approach-1, niche subjects studied by smaller groups of students tended to be spared downward adjustment; and on the whole these subjects were more likely to be offered in private, fee-paying schools. While wealthier kids fared better in pockets, Ofqual continued to insist that poorer kids had done better overall. How much consolation this was to devastated individuals can probably be guessed.
Exams rank. Exams sort. In any given year, they pull aside a large number of ambitious kids and bluntly check their ambitions. Exams are cruel like this, but for all the many ways in which they are unfair, they do allow for something useful, which is a sense of agency. You go in clutching your biro – and your fate – in hand. You sit down and maybe you ask one of the patrolling teachers for a folded piece of paper to correct the desk’s distracting wobble. You turn over your page, and now it’s all on you, shit, shit, shit … ! Taylor and Ofqual would quickly admit that Approach-1 contained an awesome flaw. It allowed for no real agency. It did not give individuals, in Taylor’s words, “the ability to affect their fate”. After March, when schools had been closed and exams cancelled, nothing was on the kids. They were hardly involved till they ripped open their envelopes.
In the upstairs corridor at St Joseph’s, Elleston-Burrell put his page of grades in his pocket and thought, fleetingly, I won’t go to uni after all. I’ll be an artist. I’ll be a musician. For years, he hadn’t deviated from his plan to become an architect, though there were moments when he had felt frustrated at how much patience it was asking of him. He often thought about a time, about halfway through his school career, when a boy he knew walked out of the gates to pursue a longshot career in football – and the next time Elleston-Burrell saw that boy, he was back on a drive-by visit, contracted to a professional team, sitting behind the wheel of a Mercedes, most-way a man. Stuck as a schoolboy, Elleston-Burrell often did the sums, adding up the time until he graduated St Joseph’s, then the seven more years it would take to get through any architecture programme. Always he had stuck to the plan. Now, on his last day at school, and really for the first time in his life, he gave serious thought to abandoning architecture altogether. I’ll be a graphic designer, he thought. I’ll make clothes.
That morning, three options existed for students like him who questioned their computer-generated grades. They could accept what they’d been given and move on. They could rush home and open their textbooks, to study up in their subjects before a series of prove-us-wrong exams that Ofqual had scheduled for autumn. (These exams would take place after universities were already full, which as Ofqual later acknowledged, rendered the option null for anybody who did not wish to sit out for a gap year.) Third option? Students could appeal, or try to.
Elleston-Burrell took his page of grades to a teacher at St Joseph’s he trusted. “Miss? It doesn’t seem right.” He explained the situation. A year earlier, in the 2019 exams, he had got a B in mandarin. In fact, there had been no need for him to retake the exam at all, except to challenge himself. After a year of additional study, more fluent not less, he had been awarded a C. And the maths grade broke his heart. “An E, miss? It’s one up from a fail. It’s like saying I sat down for an exam, wrote my name, did a couple of questions, and closed the book.”
The teacher suggested he appeal, sending Elleston-Burrell back down the corridor to the maths department to ask what the next steps were. He passed a computer room full of shellshocked peers, already logging on to admissions pages to see about second-choice universities, third choices, openings they hadn’t considered before this morning. Universities around the country were starting to fill. Soon more than 400,000 places would be gone. When Elleston-Burrell got to the maths department he was met by teachers who were flustered and uncertain about the appeals process. “We don’t know what the government’s saying yet,” Elleston-Burrell was told.
He tried not to panic. He wanted to make an appeal before his spot on UCL’s architecture programme went to someone else – again. But nobody, not his teachers, not Ofqual, not government ministers, would have been able to say in this moment what counted as admissible evidence for him to mount a protest. He had been told what he was worth and given no means to disagree. Many of those I spoke to in the worlds of education and politics insisted that if Johnson’s government had betrayed the country’s youth that August morning, it was not with the algorithm. It was with the mess made of appeals.
Ofqual had known since the spring that the Approach-1 algorithm would spit out anomalies. It knew these blips would have to be corrected by human intervention – appeals – if they were to be corrected at all. How something as necessary as a process for making those appeals was missing on 13 August is a story typical of Johnson-era governance. His is a campaigning government, brought to power on one-sentence promises, with bold raspberries blown at detail. Far too late, Johnson’s ministers sought to fiddle with aspects of the appeals process that Ofqual had spent a summer planning. Details were rushed or skimped. Nothing was firmly in place when it mattered, and students like Elleston-Burrell were left in limbo over a long weekend, watching as half a million university places went to other people.
On 16 August, after Roger Taylor acknowledged “a situation that was rapidly getting out of control”, a decision was made that the Approach-1 algorithm was by now so tarnished it would be better if they abandoned it. Elleston-Burrell was at work the next day, on 17 August, when he heard. Ofqual and the government had decided that every student in England would now receive the grades that were predicted by their teachers back in June. For some, this was good news. (In Oxford, that talented young English student got her A* after all.) Others were left stranded, their grades a lot better, but their places at university gone. When I got through to Elleston-Burrell that day, he was trying to brave it out, but he sounded glum. He kept repeating, dazedly, “I don’t even know, man.”
His grades had been adjusted up, the mandarin from a C to an A, the maths from an E to a C. He was now an AAC student. Still it was not quite enough to get him over the line and on to his course, which required at least a B in maths. University terms were due to start in a month. Many admissions offices had agreed to hold places as long as they could, so that students could get as much clarity on their grades as possible. If Elleston-Burrell had any hope, he needed to nudge up his maths grade from a C to a B. For that to happen, he would have to take the fight to St Joseph’s, the school that had helped shape him since he was 11, the school where they still used a picture of his face in ads and had his paintings on the walls.
Most of us will reach our last days at school with a mixed parcel of knowledge, a few facts, a few equations, the reasons why Hitler rose and Hamlet dithered, as well as those other proficiencies that cannot be graded A to U, like how fantastic it feels to make a fierce teacher drop their guard and grin, or when to stick in blackjack, when to twist. I doubt very many of us finish school with the knowledge of who we really are or what we’re really capable of. It seems so strange to choose this moment – potential at a peak, hunger cresting – to insist on limits. We issue a string of letter-grades to determine the worth and potential of a person when they are only at the start of personhood. Elleston-Burrell had been told at different times since he was 17 that he was an AAA kid, an ACU kid, an ABC kid, an AAC kid. Now, at 19, he was racing against the clock to prove he was as capable as any AAB kid before an elite university shut its doors to him.
“What’s bizarre to me is that we’ve created a system where so much rests on something that’s so inaccurate,” Sam Freedman told me. Freedman is an education executive who during a crammed career has run schools, overseen teacher training, and worked as an adviser inside David Cameron’s government. “Even in a normal year,” Freedman said, “you’ve got people’s lives being decided on a few grades, when those grades have a 50% chance of being wrong.”
By Ofqual’s own admission, about half the grades issued to school leavers in any given year were in some way aberrant or off. Levels of strictness, pedantry and pity varied from teacher to teacher, marker to marker, region to region. Essay-based subjects in particular were a nightmare for Ofqual to standardise. Such kinks and irregularities as there were got targeted by the algorithms that Ofqual made use of even in non-pandemic years. These algorithms were a bit like desperate duvet-shakes, to try to get the edges square on a nation’s grades – and even then, when all was said and done, lumps remained.
“So forget Covid,” Freedman said. Every year, school leavers were sent scuttering off this way or that way, dodging life’s queues or joining life’s bottlenecks and jams, based on a filtering system that was appallingly flawed. Freedman could only think we’d stuck by this flawed system so long because no one had come up with anything better. “Because no one’s been prepared to acknowledge what it would mean to dismantle it all.”
In August 2020, as Elleston-Burrell’s options dwindled, he turned to his teachers at St Joseph’s. He reckoned that if he submitted enough evidence about his standard in maths they might somehow bump up that grade, and in doing so clear his path to university. Over a fortnight in late August and early September, difficult emails went back and forth between Elleston-Burrell and his mother on one side, and St Joseph’s and its headteacher, David Garrido, on the other. Would the school consider changing the grade? Why not?
Part of the deadlock seemed to be that while Elleston-Burrell had spent some of the Covid-disrupted year in class, he had spent more of it with his private tutor. As an “adult learner”, retaking the year by choice, he was free to study as he chose. He had simply judged he was making better progress one-on-one. Ofqual later said that adult learners were at a particular disadvantage in 2020, because their relationships with schools were likely to be more distant or tenuous than in-house students; and in the end, schools chose the grades.
During his final year at St Joseph’s, Elleston-Burrell had often worn a special uniform of his own devising – smart trousers and shirt, brightly coloured coat, a gesture to his midway status, half enrolled and half graduated. It was his bad luck to occupy this middle ground in 2020 when everything was such a mess. The deliberations between Elleston-Burrell and St Joseph’s over his maths grade were tortured and sometimes bitter. Garrido, the headteacher, declined to answer my specific questions, except to say that this was probably the most complicated case he had to deal with all year.
On 10 September, with seven days to go until admissions closed at UCL, St Joseph’s confirmed it was reviewing the disputed grade. Quickly, after that, a decision reached Elleston-Burrell by email. The school could not budge, it said. The C stood. He was AAC, immutably, and he would have to start figuring out what sort of future could be fashioned from that.
Rhianne Elleston Pascall flinched when she heard the school’s final verdict. She was close to her son. He had been born when Rhianne was quite young herself, coming along premature, she told me, “this little 4lb 3oz boy we weren’t sure was going to make it. Now he’s this big, deep-voiced, muscular young man who’s able to tell us where he wants to go. I’ve grown up with Josiah. I’ve openly told him I can get things wrong, too. There’s no handbook. We can work it out together and crack on. That has kind of forged our closeness.” As he grew older, he came to her less and less with his problems. But when he did come, Rhianne was used to being able to fix things, or at least buck him up and restore some of his fight so that he might find a fix himself. Something about these weeks in August and September felt different to her, as if this time there might not be any fix.
It concerned her, too, how many other young people – young men, young Black men – might have been set adrift like her son. Rhianne worked for Croydon council and she knew very well the compromised dynamics in the borough and the risks for its youths who became discouraged. She told me she was worried about “those students with parents who don’t have English as their native language. Those parents who don’t understand what is happening with these grades and are sitting at home accepting them. They may lose their child in a couple of years. They may not know what the driving force behind that even was.”
In August, she had written to her local councillor. She left a message after the beep for their local MP. Now that it was September, Rhianne called her pastor for advice, and she turned to colleagues at Croydon council, encouraging her son to do the same whenever he went in for shifts at Waitrose. “Son?” she said to him, even as the UCL deadline got closer. “It’s not over.”
On 14 September, mother and son sat down on her bed and composed a long email to the director of architecture at UCL, “the last attempt to secure my place”, Elleston-Burrell wrote. People from church had fed in with suggestions all month. Mates at Waitrose offered encouragement, and one of Rhianne’s colleagues at Croydon council agreed to proofread the email before they sent it. A community who could see the person behind the AAC, who knew his million qualities that could not be graded A to U, came together to help him make a final push.
It was a blockbuster email: Elleston-Burrell read it to me on a rackety train out of Croydon that was taking him to work. The journey was interrupted by a faulty door alarm, and an unexplained stop between stations, but even then it took him the whole trip to read it through. He had included everything. Hopes. Near misses. He explained who he was at 19, and who he might become given the chance. As the train pulled into central London, he read me the final passages: “My head and heart are already at UCL. I will do whatever it takes.”
That same month there was a long, salty meeting between Ofqual’s leadership and the UK parliament’s education committee, broadcast online, which picked over the events of the summer and sometimes felt like a criminal trial in which Taylor, his colleagues, even the Approach-1 algorithm, were codefendants. Approach-1 was already a famous failure. Perhaps it was the first algorithm in the history of computer science to be condemned on the front page of every major British newspaper. During the parliamentary meeting, Taylor was urged to publicly disown his co-creation. It would have been easy for him to blame the crisis on a rogue, out-of-control algorithm. With his usual craven briskness, Johnson had done exactly this, muttering about a “mutant” strain of code. Taylor could not bring himself to denounce Approach-1 in such terms.
The algorithm did what it was supposed to do. Humans, in the end, had no stomach for what it was supposed to do. Algorithms don’t go rogue, they don’t go on mutant rampages, they only sometimes reveal and amplify the cruddy human biases that underpin them. Ofqual’s mistake was to think this exercise – which made plain our usual tricks for filtering and limiting young lives – would be morally tolerable as it played out in public view. Taylor apologised to everyone who had been hurt by Approach-1 and later resigned his position as chair of Ofqual.
The news passed Elleston-Burrell by, focused as he was on his own battle. The last-chance email he’d written to UCL was sent on the evening of 14 September, with less than two days to go until the deadline for admissions. He was amazed to receive a reply within hours. His email, “eloquent and powerful”, had caused “a great deal of activity”, he read. In fact it had been kicked up to the top decision-makers at UCL and he was told he could expect more news soon.
But how soon was soon, Elleston-Burrell began to wonder, as 15 September turned to 16 September – deadline day. Tense with waiting, he snapped at his mum. Rhianne had glimpsed the state of his email inbox and she lectured him about staying on top of his correspondence at such a critical time. They squabbled. They prayed it out. Elleston-Burrell sat on the sofa at home where, brusquely, grumpily, still after all a teenager, he began to delete spam emails.
“Wait,” he muttered. His nan was there, too. “Wait.” They had been expecting more news from UCL’s director of architecture and somehow Elleston-Burrell had missed a separate thread of emails from the admissions office. They’d written to say – “Wait!” – that he had a place on the course after all. He only had to reply by 5pm. Everybody looked at the clock: 2.15pm. The family allowed themselves a minute to scream. “Hyenas,” Rhianne described it. Then a few minutes to cry. At 2.21pm, Elleston-Burrell wrote to accept.
I met him a couple of hours later at East Croydon station, where he kept glancing at the platform clock, blinking, shaking his head, staggered at how fine the margins had been till the end. His phone rang and rang as people heard the news and he spoke to them all in the hoarse, disbelieving tones of someone who’d been lucky to walk away from an accident with only scratches. “Thank you. I know. Thank you.” Together we watched the 5pm deadline come around, as though this somehow made everything more official, less stealable, and afterwards Elleston-Burrell tapped on his phone, answering well-done messages, researching course materials, timetables, the right textbooks. After such a wait, the new term, life’s next bit, would start in one week.
At last, Elleston-Burrell’s last day at school. It was November, cold out, and he pulled up the hood of his coat to walk in from the usual bus stop. He went past St Joseph’s sports pitch, its medical centre, that staff room where they had a mounted photograph of him (beaming, 13, no real clue) gazing down benevolently on every teachers’ meeting. Whenever the wind blew open the flaps of his coat, you could see a dangling lanyard and a shiny student ID. He had been an architecture undergrad for six weeks. Already he was tired, stressed by coursework, and thrilled to be these things. He’d come back to St Joseph’s to retrieve some of those paintings of his that still hung on the walls.
It was early when he got inside the school, about an hour before morning bell. Elleston-Burrell crossed the empty playground and entered a building by one of the common rooms. The few teachers he passed wore face masks, difficult to recognise as they hurried into morning meetings. Educators everywhere were girding themselves for another academic year that was about to be heavily disrupted by Covid. Just a few weeks after Elleston-Burrell’s final visit to St Joseph’s, the education minister, Gavin Williamson, would announce, again, that exams were off in 2021. Puffing himself up, for all the world as if he hadn’t been the one to initiate Approach-1 in the first place, Williamson would go on to make a flashy promise that “this year, we will put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms”. At the time of writing, precise details of the 2021 plan have yet to be finalised.
Elleston-Burrell felt bad for the kids about to leave St Joseph’s without the opportunity to prove themselves in pen-and-paper exams. At the same time, he was relieved not to have to worry about predictions, approaches, AACs or AABs, any of it. He was finished as a schoolboy. When he climbed the stairs to the art department there was no one around, and he stood for a moment, staring at his paintings. First the tribute to his late cousin, Miguel. Then the portrait of his mother. Then the one of himself, eating fruit. He’d forgotten that these paintings were once done on thick wooden boards so heavy and unwieldy that they were nailed directly to the school brick. He dragged over a chair and began pulling and scrabbling. Plaster flakes got under his fingernails. Finally, he wrenched the portraits free.