Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has slammed government incompetence following the A-level U-turn yesterday – but Gavin Williamson is still expected to stay on.
After coming under vast pressure, Mr Williamson decided to allow GCSE and A-level results in England to be based on teachers’ predicted grades rather than an algorithm that left many students devastated last Thursday.
However tens of thousands of pupils still face an uncertain future as universities try and find them places on courses that could already be at capacity.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer wrote in the Daily Mirror the Conservatives’ handling of the situation ‘sums up their handling of this pandemic – incompetent’.
‘At a time of national emergency, this is no way to run a country,’ he added.
‘The Tories’ incompetence is holding Britain back from recovery.’
Despite the chaos of the past five days, dithering Williamson is expected to keep his job, despite mounting calls for him to resign.
A number of MPs within his own party have been calling for his head with George Freeman telling Times Radio that the grading system had been a ‘total shambles’.
But a government source has said the Prime Minister highly values the loyalty and support Mr Williamson showed to him during his leadership campaign so his job is not under immediate threat.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer wrote in the Daily Mirror the Conservatives’ handling of the situation ‘sums up their handling of this pandemic – incompetent’
Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his office at the Department of Education in Westminster, London, following the announcement that A-level and GCSE results in England will now be based on teachers’ assessments
The under-pressure Education Secretary appeared so confident in his position that he posed for pictures in his office yesterday despite the ongoing chaos.
Appearing on Sky News today Mr Williamson said he first became aware of problems with the algorithm at the weekend, and said he had confidence the system they put in place was robust.
He said: ‘Going back a number of weeks obviously we’ve constantly worked with Ofqual and we’ve put challenge, consistent challenge, within the system to have reassurance that this is a system that would work and be fair.
‘Obviously when we saw the Scottish system and the challenges there, working with Ofqual we wanted to put a more robust and stronger appeal process into the system.
‘That’s why we brought forward the triple lock that we put in place before the launch of the exams systems.’
Asked when he first became aware of the problems with the algorithm, he said: ‘Well, it became apparent that there were challenges within the algorithm when we were seeing the results directly coming out and then over the weekend.
‘We’d got concerns before … when we saw what had happened in Scotland, we wanted to have a more robust system put in place.’
Appearing on Sky News today Mr Williamson said he first became aware of problems with the algorithm at the weekend, and said he had confidence the system they put in place was robust
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the Government had every confidence in the exams system due to the ‘extensive consultation’ carried out.
He told Sky News: ‘When we were in the position as a result of Covid of having to cancel exams, we consulted extensively and widely right across the sector with unions, with the school sector and right across the public.
Backlash as BTECs are left out
BTEC students were left in limbo last night after they were ruled out of the Government’s exam results U-turn.
Ofqual chairman Roger Taylor confirmed that A-level and GCSE grades would now be calculated on teachers’ assessments – but said the change did not apply to BTECs.
Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has vowed to fight for BTEC students to be included in the new policy.
Mr Burnham has threatened to sue the Government over its handling of the exams crisis and he said he would pursue the legal action unless another U-turn was made.
At present, BTEC students across the country still face being left with grades calculated by a computer algorithm.
As each BTEC qualification is worth fewer UCAS points than an A-level, the impact of a downgrade is even more severe on BTEC students.
The intervention from Mr Burnham comes after many students complained they have still not found out their final results despite expecting to receive them last Thursday.
Exam board Pearson, the UK’s largest awarding body for qualifications including BTECs, A-levels and GCSEs, admitted that there have been significant delays for hundreds of BTEC results.
It means those affected are unable to confirm their university places even though spaces are being rapidly filled up through the clearing process. The exam board said it was looking into the issue ‘urgently’.
Of the Government’s U-turn on exam results, a spokesman said: ‘For the very small number of grades that were adjusted, we will be reviewing them on a case by case basis.’
‘Ofqual ran one of the largest consultations it’s ever run with over 12,000 responses and there was a broad political consensus about the need to have moderated grades, and that was the route we went down.
‘This was not just in England, but also Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We all worked incredibly closely together to get a system that was fair and that was robust.
‘We had every confidence because of the extensive consultation and broad consultation that we’d sort of done in terms of the development of the system that what had been developed by Ofqual would be something that would stand scrutiny and would have the robustness that wasn’t the case in the Scottish system.’
He added: ‘One of the key differences also that we saw between the system that was developed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the systems that were developed across those three nations, was you didn’t have that same disparity between the marking down of grades between children from disadvantaged areas to those children from more advantaged areas.
‘So there was a greater deal of confidence that this was a much more robust system that would deliver fair outcomes for students.’
Shadow education secretary Kate Green has written to Mr Williamson with 15 questions, including asking when students will receive their new grades and whether there will still be a free appeals process.
She welcomed the Government having ‘finally reversed its position’ after mounting calls from students, teachers and Conservative MPs.
‘However, the confusion of the past few weeks, and delay in making these important decisions, mean there are now important outstanding issues on which students, parents and institutions need urgent clarity,’ she added.
Whether students who have accepted an offer based on their moderated grades can switch institutions and how universities will be supported by the move to scrap the temporary limit on places were among her queries.
She also called for Mr Williamson to confirm no universities will be ‘allowed to fail financially’ as a result of the changes and for the Cabinet minister to set out the position for BTEC students’ grades.
In a statement, the Labour MP added: ‘This was a welcome and necessary change in policy, but we should never have been in this position as the government has had months to get this right.
‘The delay and chaos accompanying means that students, families, and education providers have no answers to essential questions.’
Mr Williamson on Monday apologised for ‘the distress’ caused to students and their parents and said it became clear over the weekend that action was needed after Ofqual released additional data about its algorithm.
There were widespread concerns the move to base results partly on schools’ past performances would have a greater negative impact on bright pupils and disadvantaged schools.
A timeline of exam failure
March 18: Schools are closed and exams cancelled as the UK grinds to a halt under the coronavirus lockdown
March 20: Ministers say Ofqual and exam boards will work out a system for judging grades amid fears from parents that their children could lose out.
July 11: MPs on the Education Committee warn that the calculated grades system could unfairly punish disadvantaged and minority students because of the way it is calculated.
August 4: Scottish Higher results are released, with around 100,000 grades – a quarter of the total – marked down under a plan put in place by Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP administration
August 11: The Scottish Education Minister John Swinney U-turns under pressure from Tories and Labour and says predicted grades will be used instead of the algorithm.
August 11: Ministers in England decide that pupils will be able to appeal against their grades, in some cases using mock exam performance, just two days before the English results are released.
August 13: Almost 40 per cent of A-Level results in England are downgraded by Ofqual’s algorithm, sparking widespread fury and demands for a U-turn.
August 15: Ministers say that it will fund appeals against the marks handed out, in a bid to quell to anger.
August 15: Ofqual withdrawals its appeal criteria just hours after publishing it, pending a review.
August 17: Mr Williamson announces that A-Levels and GCSEs due to be unveiled on Thursday will be calculated using predicted grades, amid calls for his resignation.