An 18-year-old student’s award-winning dystopian story was eerily accurate in predicting her own experience during exam results week.
The story appeared to predict the UK’s A-level results crisis in which an algorithm seemed to be downgrading grades according to social class.
Jessica Johnson, a student at Ashton Sixth Form College in Greater Manchester told reporters:
“I’ve fallen into my story. It’s crazy! I based it on the educational inequality I already saw. I just exaggerated that inequality and added the algorithm. But I really didn’t think it would come true as quick as it did!”
The young writer won the Orwell Youth Prize senior award in 2019 for her first ever short story A Band Apart. Set in 2029, the story envisioned a malicious algorithm that sorts students into bands based on their social class and background. “Mum still thinks I can be a doctor. She doesn’t understand how hard it is to get into Band 1 for people like us,” explains one character.
A year later, Johnson finds herself living her own dystopian nightmare. The Tory government’s algorithm had been accused of being class-driven, and designed to downgrade students in less affluent areas. Johnson’s own English A-level result was downgraded from an A grade to a B grade, and she subsequently lost her place at the University of St Andrews. The UK Government have since made a U-turn and results will now be based on teachers’ predictions- but it could be too late for many students like Johnson who have already missed out on their dream university placement.
“I’ve been so stressed and anxious these past few days, waiting to hear back from universities,” Johnson said. “We got told you can go wherever you want in life if you work hard enough, but we’ve seen this year that no matter how hard you worked, you got given a grade based on where you live.”
Prof Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell prize, was impressed with Johnson’s work: “Jessica saw into the heart of what the system represents and her story demonstrates the human ability which exams only exist to uncover.”
Johnson said she never thought her dystopian take on educational inequality would become real: “It’s not exactly a fairy tale I wanted to come true!”