PERHAPS, in the coffee houses of early 20th-century Britain where the street philosophers gathered, they cast their minds forward and predicted what societal changes might come to pass in the course of the next 100 years. I expect the more enlightened might easily have predicted votes for women and universal suffrage. You would expect, too, that some might have divined the inevitable disintegration of empire and the rise of the proletariat as the trade union movement began to flex its muscles. The more visionary might even have dared to anticipate a day when a political party representing the interests of working-class people would form Her Majesty’s UK Government.

I fondly imagine them also envisaging what customs and habits, accepted in the Victorian era, would wither and die in the generations to come. An end to the death penalty and to anti-homosexual laws, for sure, and the practice of forced servitude and sending the financially distressed to a debtor’s jail or the poorhouse. Several would be astonished to find that we still cage and torture animals in zoos well into the 21st century. That such barbarism and cruelty still flourishes in the civilised world is one of the great mysteries.

Yet, in human society just as inexplicable is the proliferation of fee-paying, independent schools in a nation which purports to cherish fairness and equality of opportunity. But then, if a majority of the population are content to permit the royal family to own palaces and live like millionaires on the public purse, anything else probably seems reasonable. When mediocrity and unearned privilege is so endemic in the British experience, the pursuit of genuine excellence seems futile.

Throughout this year’s exams fiasco across the UK, little has been said about the blight of private education at the centre of it all. Perhaps we just assumed that of course no pupil attending one of these social conditioning factories would have been penalised by the algorithm. These places don’t just encourage social superiority; they assume that the rest of us have become so seasoned in the deception that we are blind to its implications.

Why were we surprised that the algorithm used to moderate a pupil’s performance in the absence of exams discriminated against children from disadvantaged areas? This is how it was always going to behave given the data it was fed. It merely reflected the unfairness that has existed in our education system for a generation.

We still equate an A pass gained by a child from our most deprived neighbourhoods with one achieved by a pupil from St Aloysius or Glasgow Academy when it should be much, much higher. Worse, our universities and far too many of our top employers fail to make the distinction either: that a qualification gained by a child who has not been handed the artificial aids of private tuition and a hot-house classroom environment must surely be worth more.

The most egregious failure of last week’s predicted grades wasn’t that some children were penalised for living in the wrong catchment area. It was that the wrong children and the wrong neighbourhoods were sanctioned. Surely, if a child has enjoyed all the artificial and unearned accoutrements of wealth and privilege in their schooling then it must only be fair that these be fed into the algorithm and a proper adjustment made.

Perhaps that’s unfair. It’s not the pupils’ fault that their family has exploited a system which allows economic muscle and little else to secure an advantage at a crucial juncture in their academic formation. This may seem absurd; grotesque even and a sinister exercise in social engineering. But it’s no more so than annually depriving gifted children with a delinquent postcode in their address of a fair and equal chance to realise their God-given abilities.

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IN a system which unduly rewards rote learning and blind obedience to a narrowly prescribed teaching model within a constricted period of time, a bland class of well-spoken automatons will emerge. People who have learned to be suspicious of imagination, instinct and spontaneity will gravitate to those positions that the state deems to be key in ordering society to the well defined and predictable rhythms of the ages.

And on those occasions when something impromptu and improvised is required, they’ll be hopelessly adrift. One of those occasions was the challenge of constructing a fair and equal method of academic assessment during a once-in-a-generation pandemic. We’ve had 21 years of leftish, devolved government in Scotland but all the while it has been underpinned by a civil service and legislature populated by the clever but lethally uninquisitive products of academic privilege.

An assortment of Tories have expressed concern that leaving teachers’ estimates in place this year will produce a damaging blip. That standards have been ruinously lowered in the class of 2020 and that this will lead to university courses being devalued and a generation of young adults ill equipped for jobs beyond their real academic aptitude. But let’s speak frankly here.

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How many positions vital to the effective management of the country are occupied to a disproportionate degree by people who have enjoyed the dubious accoutrements of unearned advantage?

In jobs that demand the brightest and the best we choose from a ridiculously narrow gene pool dominated by a mere handful of expensive finishing schools. Thus, true ability and qualifications gained through fair competition is too often supplanted by mediocrity and entitlement.

How many ruinous decisions in the heat of battle have been made by in-bred aristocrats who accessed Sandhurst and a commission by little more than a family name? How many equally disastrous economic choices were made in government by people with little more than a decent family connection when the situation demanded imagination and a nimble intellect?

At Westminster, this pandemic has made extraordinary demands of a class of people who have known little but easy advantage. Their answer was to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on substandard PPE made by firms owned by their friends and business partners. It’s been their solution to the few crises any of them have ever had to face.

In Scotland we managed to extricate ourselves from this tsunami of failure and negligence just in the nick of time. But in almost every sphere of our country’s management we still cling to failed and discredited models of professional and academic assessment. We managed to apply a bandage to this year’s exams failure.

But the hidden inequalities it momentarily exposed will return to afflict the same children from the same neighbourhoods next year and we’ll all look the other way once more.