DfE gives full backing to Ofqual over A-Level and GCSE grade fiasco after Gavin Williamson refused to

DfE says it has "full confidence" in exam regulator as it emerges the department was warned the grading system could lead to incorrect results
Students protesting A-Level results earlier this week. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

By Alain Tolhurst

20 Aug 2020

The Department for Education has given its full backing to Ofqual over the A-level and GCSE grading controversy after Gavin Williamson repeatedly refused to do so.

The education secretary appears to have bowed to pressure and supported England's exams regulator after criticism he was shifting the blame for the results fiasco onto the qualifications regulator.

On Tuesday, the cabinet minister refused to personally express “confidence” in Sally Collier, the head of Ofqual, simply saying she had worked hard in her position.

He said Ofqual “didn’t deliver the system that we had been reassured... would be in place” after the algorithm used to deliver moderated grades to pupils had to be scrapped in a major U-turn.

And asked on multiple occasions during a media round if he backed Collier to stay in post, Williamson would only say: “Well, we’ve worked with Ofqual and at every stage I know that Ofqual have done absolutely everything they can do to ensure that they have fairness within the system. And [we] continue to work with Ofqual, and the head of Ofqual, to ensure that we deliver youngsters with grades they deserve.”

But he was accused of “scapegoating” officials after it was reported Jonathan Slater, DfE's permanent secretary, could face the sack.

In response, DfE published a statement yesterday morning saying: "As the government has made clear, we have full confidence in Ofqual and its leadership in their role as independent regulator and we continue to work closely with Ofqual to deliver fair results for our young people at this unprecedented time.

"The decision they took to move from moderated grades to centre assessed grades was one that we agreed with.

"Our focus remains on working with Ofqual to ensure students receive their final GCSE, AS Level and A-Level results this week so that they can move on to the next stage of their lives.”

Earlier that day, health secretary Matt Hancock had said sacking Williamson would only “distract” from the task of re-opening all schools next month.

He told Sky News: “These are unprecedented circumstances and I think everybody is working their hardest and trying to do their best in very difficult circumstances and I know that is true of Gavin Williamson as it is of all members of the government.

“The big focus is on getting schools back and open at the start of next month, an incredibly important task. I don’t think we should be distracted from that task now. We need to absolutely focus on it.”

Williamson is currently favourite with the bookmakers to be the next minister to leave the cabinet, but The Telegraph reports the prime minister, Boris Johnson, will not hold a full reshuffle this autumn and that he may stay in post until the new year.

'DfE was warned'

DfE's backing for Ofqual came as it was reported the department was warned six weeks ago that the A-level and GCSE grading system could lead to thousands of students being given the wrong results.

A senior DfE source told The Times that Sir Jon Coles, a former director general for standards, wrote to Williamson to express his concerns over an algorithm used to determine results.

He is said to have told the cabinet minister that the model applied to A-level and GCSE grades would only be 75% accurate, meaning hundreds of thousands of students were in line to receive the wrong grades.

MPs on the the Education Select Committee meanwhile warned the department in early July: “Given the potential risks of bias in calculated grades, it is clear that standardisation will be a crucial part of ensuring fairness.”

They said: “We are extremely concerned that Ofqual’s standardisation model does not appear to include any mechanism to identify whether groups such as BAME pupils, FSM [free school meal] eligible pupils, children looked after, and pupils with SEND [special educational needs] have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades.”

MPs on the the Education Select Committee in early July meanwhile warned the Department for Education: “Given the potential risks of bias in calculated grades, it is clear that standardisation will be a crucial part of ensuring fairness.”

They said: “We are extremely concerned that Ofqual’s standardisation model does not appear to include any mechanism to identify whether groups such as BAME pupils, FSM [free school meal] eligible pupils, children looked after, and pupils with SEND [special educational needs] have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades.”

Confirming that Coles had raised the issue with DfE, schools minister Nick Gibb told the Today programme this morning: “He spoke to me about it, and he was concerned about the model, and he was concerned that it would disadvantage particularly children from poorer backgrounds.”

But he said: “I called a meeting... with Ofqual to discuss in detail those very concerns.

“And it is clear that the model would not disproportionately disadvantage young people, and we did see that in the grades last week.”

He added: “The model itself was fair, it was very popular, its was widely consulted upon. 

“The problem arose in the way in which the three phases of the applications of that model: the historic data of the school, the prior attainment of the cohort of pupils at the school, and then the national standard correction – it’s  that element of the application of the model that I think there is a concern [about].”

Gibb's comments came after the Office for Statistics Regulation said it would carry out a review of the algorithm used to calculate grades and how it was selected.

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