A-Level row: 'It's unlikely we could ever have delivered this policy successfully,' Ofqual chair says

Roger Taylor said it was Gavin Williamson's decision to use algorithm, but Ofqual is "ultimately responsible for the decisions that fall to us".
Taylor said nothing could offset the "feeling of unfairness" students would feel about being awarded a grade without sitting an exam. Photo: PA images

The chair of Ofqual, the regulator at the centre of the row over A-Levels and other qualifications, has said it is “unlikely” it could ever have successfully carried out its instructions to award grades without students sitting exams.

In a letter to the Education Select Committee of MPs yesterday, Roger Taylor said there had been “much discussion” over the controversial algorithm used to award results – which led to some students being awarded lower grades than expected, and prompted a backlash so strong the government was forced to U-turn.

Taylor said the regulator had been aware of some of the problems using the algorithm could raise, and that while it was told to do so, the regulator must “fully accept” its share of responsibility in the fiasco.

The letter came a week after Ofqual’s chief regulator Sally Collier resigned and DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater was sacked over the row.

“The decision to use a system of statistical standardised teacher assessments was taken by the secretary of state and issued as a direction to Ofqual. Ofqual could have rejected this, but we decided that this was in the best interests of students, so that they could progress to their next stage of education, training or work,” he said,

“The implementation of that approach was entirely down to Ofqual,” he said, but added that the regulator had kept the Department for Education “fully informed” about its plans, risks and impact on results. 

He added: “However, we are ultimately responsible for the decisions that fall to us as the regulator.”

Taylor also dismissed the idea that a different algorithm to calculate results “might have led to a different outcome”.

“What became apparent in the days after issuing A-Level results was that neither the equalities analyses, nor the prospect of appeals, nor the opportunity to take exams in the autumn, could make up for the feeling of unfairness that a student had when given a grade other than what they and their teachers believed they were capable of, without having had the chance to sit the exam,” he said.

“With hindsight it appears unlikely that we could ever have delivered this policy successfully,” he added.

He said while Ofqual had initially advised the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to let students sit exams, unions had supported the approach Ofqual ultimately adopted. He said in a survey it had run, 89% of respondents “agreed or strongly agreed with our proposed aims for the statistical standardisation approach”.

But he said Ofqual had known it could cause problems, including a "very small proportion of quite anomalous results" that would need to be corrected on appeal.

He said the regulator was particularly concerned that bright students in historically low-attaining schools could be awarded lower results than they deserved. There were numerous media reports of this scenario happening after results were awarded.

“We identified that approximately 0.2% of young peoples’ grades were affected by this but that it was not possible to determine in advance which cases warranted a change to grades,” Taylor said.

“That is why the appeals process we designed and refined was so important. But we recognise that young people receiving these results experienced significant distress and that this caused people to question the process.”

Taylor also noted it had been impossible to standardise grades in very small classes, which “benefitted smaller schools and disadvantaged larger schools and colleges”, and benefitted private schools in particular.

“We knew about this, but were unable to find a solution to this problem. However, we still regarded standardisation as preferable because overall it reduced the relative advantage of private schools compared to others,” Taylor said.

He said the approach Ofqual chose had “failed to win public confidence, even in circumstances where it was operating exactly as we had intended it to”.

“Above all else, we want to make clear that we are sorry for what happened this summer: the distress and anxiety it has caused for many students and their parents; the problems it has created for teachers; and the impact it has had on higher and further education providers,” Taylor wrote.

‘A fundamental mistake’

Taylor’s letter followed his appearance before the committee this week, in which he said it had been Williamson’s decision to cancel exams and implement a system of calculated grades “without further consultation”.

“The fundamental mistake was to believe this would ever be acceptable to the public”, he added.

A DfE spokesperson said: “As we’ve consistently said, the Government never wanted to cancel exams because they are the best and fairest form of assessment.

“We listened to views from a range of parties, including Ofqual, and given the public health requirements at the time, made what was a very difficult decision on the basis that it was a necessary step to fight the spread of coronavirus.

“We welcome the work of the education select committee and look forward to engaging with it while working closely with Ofqual to ensure fairness for students both this year and in years to come.”

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