Best-laid plans: a lesson in chaos theory

‘Hats’ by David Morris on

There’s an odd provisionality to plans these days. Unlike the dog days of lockdown proper, when it seemed as though time itself had stopped and nobody who didn’t have to was making any commitments that would require them to leave their houses, people are starting to prepare for the future. There’s a difference, though, to the tenor of many of these arrangements.

My work diary now has dates in it stretching up to October 2021. But many of these come with odd caveats and qualifications. ‘Covid willing’, I’ve taken to writing in emails, in much the same way that more people in previous centuries might have written ‘God willing’.

All the meetings I have scheduled for the next three months come with the understanding that there is a considerable chance they may not happen. Local lockdowns or the need to self-isolate could force us back to the drawing board and everybody seems to accept this. Indeed, acknowledging our powerlessness in the face of the shifting tides of the pandemic is often a source of wry humour or camaraderie, providing the same sort of social glue that talking about the weather often generates in the UK.

Of course, in pre-Covid times, our plans were always subject to forces beyond our control. Cars crashed, trains were cancelled, people fell ill. There has always been an element of unpredictability to everything that human beings attempt. It’s simply that, for many of us living in the global North in the early-21st century, scientific advancements, prosperity and relative peace mean that we have been able to maintain the illusion of having control over our lives to a degree that would have been unfathomable to many of our ancestors.

I doubt the generation that comes after us will suffer from such delusions. Already, pupils at the UK’s schools have had a rough lesson in unpredictability. With GCSE and A-level exams cancelled this year (these are the high-school qualifications that determine whether students will be accepted by universities and other further-education institutions), A-level students discovered last week that almost 40 per cent of their results had been downgraded by an algorithm used to give final grades in the absence of exam papers. The situation was made doubly shocking when it emerged that the program was weighted against those at poorly performing institutions, meaning that, broadly speaking, those worst affected were people from deprived backgrounds.

Understandably outraged, many took to the streets. Finally, after Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all decided to abandon the algorithm’s decisions and use teacher predictions instead, the English government backed down and did the same. The decision came too late for some who had already made other plans after they lost out on their first-choice universities; for others, uncertainty persists. With institutions having to limit numbers to meet Covid-19 requirements and many having already given away the places lost by those who originally missed their grades, it is unclear how all these students can be accommodated.

Of course, there will be winners and losers in this situation. There will be those who look back on this moment and feel lucky at the unexpected course their life took. But there will be some to whom this cruel farce will deal a blow from which they may struggle to recover.

Thinking back to my 18-year-old self on A-level results day some 20 years ago, thrilled at the prospect that everything I’d worked so hard for was now within my grasp, I suspect I would have been in the latter camp, at least for a while. If nothing else, such an experience would have shaken my faith in many of the principles that underpinned my education – the importance of hard work, the broad logic and justice of the system, the need to play the game.

In the face of such chaos, I suspect I would have felt disinclined to make plans of any kind at all.


Published by Ann Morgan

I'm a UK-based author, speaker and editor. My first book, 'Reading the World' or 'The World Between Two Covers' (as it's known in the US), was inspired by my 2012 journey through a book from every country, which I recorded on My next two books are novels, 'Beside Myself' (Bloomsbury, 2016) and 'Crossing Over' (Audible, 2019).

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