The University of Southampton

Southampton student named Young Activist of the Year for A-level algorithm campaign

Published: 14 May 2021
Southampton computer science student Curtis Parfitt-Ford.

University of Southampton student Curtis Parfitt-Ford has been honoured at the TARGETjobs Undergraduate of the Year Awards for action that forced a Government U-turn on the A-level grading algorithm.

The first year BSc Computer Science student spearheaded a legal challenge against August's proposed algorithm that, for class sizes larger than 15, determined grades based on schools' past performance rather than individual achievement.

His powerful efforts, partnered with legal specialists at Foxglove, have been recognised with The Young Activist of the Year Award.

"The A-level algorithm scandal brought issues of algorithmic justice into the public consciousness, with it touching so many lives across the country," Curtis says. "It's an honour and a privilege to have our challenge recognised, and I can only hope that it leads to a greater public conversation and dialogue about oversight of algorithmic decision-making more broadly."

Last summer, UK students did not sit exams because schools were closed during the coronavirus lockdown. In England, grades were decided by the official exam regulator, Ofqual, who proposed an algorithmic model that factored in estimated grades, teacher rankings and schools' past performance.

"This policy was discriminatory," Curtis says, "with bright students in worse-off areas being punished; it was illogical, as the Government had already admitted that teachers were the ones who knew their students' performance best; and it was illegal, as it automatically profiled hundreds of thousands of students across the country without any way of opting out or requesting manual review.

"When I learned that this was happening, the Friday before results day, I knew that I couldn't sit around and let it pass: I could see the impact that it would have on so many across the country. Yet, when I started reaching out to lawyers, I'd never have imagined that we'd force the Government to back down and U-turn in just over a week."

In a matter of days, the campaign raised more than £30,000 to cover potential adverse costs, and more than a quarter of a million people signed a petition Curtis started to Ofqual.

"I'm so incredibly grateful to everyone who signed the petition, who contributed to our crowdfunder, and who helped us make the noise we did about our case," he says.

Curtis is the Technical Officer of the University's LGBTQ+ Society, as well as the Events Lead for its St John Ambulance unit. He also runs a company called Loudspeek, which enables progressive political campaigns to put supporters in touch with their representatives.

"I'm fascinated by the intersection of law and technology, and think the two absolutely have to go together," he says. "Where law lags behind tech, we can see huge injustice, and where tech has to wait for the law to catch up, we risk losing out on revolutionary innovation. Computer science, and the whole Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) field more broadly, offers a huge amount of power - and yet, that power necessarily must come with responsibility.

"As easy as it is for a teenager in their bedroom to invent a website that reinvents the way we interact for good, it's equally easy for people who are genuinely well-intentioned to make systems that are rife with bias, that are inaccessible, or that exacerbate existing inequalities in our society. It's so important that all those implications are thought through and challenged when they're not working how they should - that's the space I'd love to end up working in ultimately."

The Young Activist of the Year Award is partnered by Clifford Chance and One Young World.

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