Education secretary fails to back officials over A-Level grades row

Gavin Williamson would not be drawn on whether he was happy with the advice he had been given by senior DfE officials
Parliament TV

By Jonathan Owen

17 Sep 2020

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has refused to say whether he was happy with the advice he was given by Ofqual and senior DfE officials when making the disastrous decision to use an algorithm to grade this year’s A level and GCSE exam results.

Amid major protests over the way in which grades had been awarded, after many pupils had their predicted A level grades lowered, the government u-turned last month and allowed teacher-predicted grades to stand.

Appearing before the Education Select Committee yesterday, Williamson was repeatedly asked by committee chair Rob Halfon on whether Ofqual and his officials had got it wrong and whether he was happy with the advice he had been given.

The education secretary said that while the exams regulator "came forward with a good and solid set of policies” the reality was that “the idea of calculated grades wasn't something that was going to be acceptable and wasn't something that did work for people."

The uproar over the exam results prompted Sally Collier to resign as the chief executive of Ofqual, and resulted in the sacking of DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater last month.

Pressed by Halfon on whether Ofqual got it wrong, Williamson said: "The fundamental policy of calculated moderated grades was the right approach to be taking in terms of the exam season.”

He added: “The reality was that there were too many inconsistencies in terms of the grades and what happened there and so that was one of the real challenges and I think that led to a lack of public confidence in the awarded grades."

Halfon asked Williamson if senior DfE officials had given the wrong advice “because obviously you had the resignation of the permanent secretary?”

In response, the education secretary claimed there had been consensus on the approach to exams: "We all reached the same policy decision, that policy decision that calculated and moderated grades was going to be the fairest system to go to."

The committee chair persisted: “Did you feel that your official advice wasn’t right, is that why the permanent secretary resigned?”

Williamson replied: “We’d all looked very closely as to what is the best way to deliver qualifications...and had all reached the similar conclusion that this was the best form of doing it, through a calculated or moderated grading system.”

However, he added: “The reality of that implementation and actually the awarding wasn't something that was able to maintain public confidence."

Halfon said: “But presumably you wouldn’t have had confidence in your officials advice because otherwise he wouldn’t have resigned?”

The education secretary would not be drawn but the committee chair suggested: “You must have been unhappy with it because the Ofqual chief executive resigned and the permanent secretary resigned.”

Williamson responded by thanking Sally Collier for her “public service” and said: “That was a decision that she reached with the board.”

He did not mention Slater, but added: “The advice and the work that has been done by everyone has had that single laser-like focus in terms of ensuring that there is as much fairness in the system and that youngsters were in a position to be able to get the grades and the awarding that they needed in order to be able to progress. That is what drove officials and the ministerial team within the Department for Education, that's what drove Ofqual.”

Asked by committee member Jonathan Gullis whether Ofqual's reputation had been “damaged beyond repair” Williamson said: "What we both failed to recognise was the fact that we weren’t in peacetime but we were in a very different situation in terms of a global pandemic... and some of the systems and structures that were historically in place were probably not always best designed for when you are in that global pandemic."

Next year's exam planning details

Susan Acland-Hood, who was named acting permanent secretary at the DfE following Slater’s resignation on secondment from her role as chief executive at HM Courts and Tribunals Service, also appeared before the committee, and set out the department’s plan for next year’s exams.

“We will do our utmost to make sure that exams take place effectively next summer and we are putting everything we can think of in place around that to make sure that we can keep going and make those exams go ahead successfully,” she said.

But Acland-Hood admitted that the research needed to make “good well informed decisions” might not be ready in time for officials to consider when they decide on the date at which they should be held.

Research is being conducted to provide an assessment of the ways in which pupils have been affected by the disruption from the pandemic and what their needs are in terms of regaining lost ground.

This will “inform our decision making,” she said.

However, she added: “I'm not sure how far we will get detailed information from that work before we make decisions about exam timing because that is a decision we know we need to make soon in order to make sure everyone’s suitably prepared for the work that they need to do between now and then.”

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