We need common sense, not algorithms, to level up the North – David Behrens

Schools have become very good in the years since I was at one at removing the element of competitiveness from their annual sports days. There are no longer winners or losers, lest those who come last feel stigmatised by their ordeal.

A-levels students protesting their automated results in Leeds during the summer

Oddly, it’s an area of political correctness that does not extend to the schools themselves. The result, according to a report this week, is that those in the North come off worse in the annual league tables.

If the tables were to be handicapped to take account of the different backgrounds from whence the pupils come, the results would be very different, we’re told. Factors such as ethnicity, eligibility for free school meals and long-term deprivation could be brought into play.

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It was the Northern Powerhouse Partnership that pointed this out. The current system of awarding points based on “progress”, it said, threatened to further widen the north-south divide by penalising schools with high proportions of disadvantaged pupils. And it rendered comparisons between poor and wealthy areas meaningless.

Planning rules on housebuilding are being reconsidered

It’s not only in education where this regionalist bias is in play. Another report on the same day used an almost identical argument to decry proposed changes to the system for approving new houses. No less a figure than Theresa May said it would “fly in the face” of her party’s levelling-up agenda, strip away local control and devolve decisions to a mathematical formula that would inflict upon rural areas such as Richmondshire in the Dales a tenfold increase in housebuilding.

This business of policymaking by algorithm, which is at the heart of both the planning and education debates, demonstrates that officials have learned little from the debacle over the A-level results last summer. Those, you will recall, were calculated by a formula in a spreadsheet which downgraded nearly four in 10 predicted results.

It wasn’t hard to see how this happened. Instead of gathering as much information as it could about each student, it relied on using the smallest possible amount of data, in the interests of standardising the results. Neither common sense nor fairness entered into it, and within days there had been a U-turn by Downing Street.

Yet the Government was proposing to apply exactly the same principle to the planning system – setting targets for each area based on predictions in population growth, but ignoring the inconvenient opinions of residents.

With this in mind, it’s worth considering what an algorithm actually is, and more importantly, what the Government thinks one is. It’s a term that was used by hardly anyone outside Bletchley Park until it was popularised by the likes of Google to explain how web pages work. Even professional algorithms are flaky: “You searched for Sam Spade; you may also like this garden rake from Spear and Jackson.” And those involve millions of lines of computer code; the Government’s are more likely to be a few squiggles on a spreadsheet, put there by some civil servant who barely knows how to open the lid of his laptop. It’s like sending a rocket to the Moon based on a calculation on the back of a betting slip.

That was certainly the case with the A-levels algorithm – a single line of arithmetic which the students themselves could have knocked up, comprising as it did just four variables. The planning algorithm was more rudimentary still, and the news that Mrs May’s rebellion has triggered an early U-turn will be welcome in Richmondshire and elsewhere.

The degree to which formulaic planning is doomed to failure is perhaps best illustrated in my own village of Menston – too small for even a single fish and chip shop but the site of two vast housing developments. This is because the border between the Leeds and Bradford districts runs right through the middle, and the algorithm in place when the houses were approved applied the same building quota to each half. The formula was not sufficiently sophisticated to calculate that it was nonsense.

If any of this tells us anything, it is that rebalancing the two halves of Britain, especially after the year we’ve had, will be achieved not by artificial intelligence but by the old English technique of knocking heads together – until such time as common sense prevails and the playing field of England’s green and pleasant land is as level as a school sports day.

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