Gavin Williamson seeks to blame Ofqual for exams debacle

By Heather Stewart Kate Proctor and Sally Weale

Gavin Williamson has tried to lay the blame for the exams fiasco at the door of the regulator Ofqual after a humiliating climbdown that overturned up to 2.3m grades but left thousands of pupils in limbo.

Two days after saying there would be “no U-turn, no change”, the education secretary apologised and ordered a complete reversal whereby pupils in England will be able to revert to the A-level grades recommended by their teachers, if those are higher.

“I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents, but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve,” Williamson said.

Despite days of rising fury from headteachers, Boris Johnson had also insisted the algorithm used to decide millions of A-level and GCSE grades – which disproportionately hit disadvantaged pupils – was “robust” and “dependable”.

The government is now lifting the cap on English university admissions to let institutions admit more students who missed their offers after 40% of A-level results – about 280,000 – were downgraded. But vice-chancellors warned they would not have space to accommodate everyone, leaving thousands scrambling to secure their first-choice university.

Final GCSE results will now be delayed until next week. On Thursday schools will be able to tell pupils the centre-assessed grades they will receive but official notification has been delayed to include rare cases where the Ofqual moderated grades were higher than the teachers’ grades.

About 2m of those were set to be downgraded before Monday’s reversal.

Wales had announced a similar change to A-level grades earlier on Monday. The Northern Ireland executive followed suit, having said earlier in the day it would use teacher-assessed grades for GCSEs.

The move followed days of mounting anger among Conservative MPs, and alarm among students, that had spilled into street protests outside the Department for Education (DfE) in London and in several other cities.

Explaining the decision on Monday, Williamson claimed he had only become aware “over the Saturday and Sunday” of the scale of the problems with the Ofqual algorithm used to moderate the results. He declined to say whether he believed Sally Collier, the chief regulator of Ofqual, should resign.

“Over the weekend it became apparent to me, with evidence that Ofqual … and external experts had provided, that there were real concerns about what … [grades] a large number of students were getting … and whether that was a proper and fair reflection of their efforts,” Williamson said.

“We… consistently asked a large number of challenging questions about the system. Its robustness and its fairness. We’d been constantly reassured about that. Over the weekend Ofqual released some of the algorithm to the public and actually shared that quite broadly and obviously we saw a number of what I would call just outliers that didn’t make sense.”

Quick guide Show Hide

“[I have] every confidence that the system we have put in place is a robust system, a system that’s fair”

“The system, for the overwhelming majority of young people, is going to deliver credible, strong results. It’s a robust system, it’s a fair system, it’s making sure that young people get the grades that they’ve worked so hard towards”

“Most young people … will get the grade that the teacher sent in to the exam board that they thought they would get.”

Q) “Can you give a cast-iron guarantee that you will not be forced into the embarrassing U-turn that John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon were in Scotland?”

A) "Absolutely"

“Let’s be in no doubt about it, the exam results that we’ve got today are robust. They’re good, they’re dependable for employers. It’s very important that for years to come people should be able to look at these grades and think these are robust, these are dependable”

“This is it… No U-turn, no change… [In Scotland] you’ve got a system where there aren’t any controls, you’ve got rampant grade inflation. There’s been no checks and balances in that system; it degrades every single grade as a result and in-baked unfairness” 

Thank you for your feedback.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, welcomed what he called a “screeching U-turn” from the government. “This is a victory for the thousands of young people who have powerfully made their voices heard this past week. However, the Tories’ handling of this situation has been a complete fiasco. Incompetence has become this government’s watchword, whether that is on schools, testing or care homes. Boris Johnson’s failure to lead is holding Britain back.”

Williamson declined to say whether he had offered to resign in the wake of the crisis, which prompted Johnson to intervene from his Scottish holiday to hold a phone call with ministers and senior officials. With school reopenings in England just two weeks away, the PM’s spokesman insisted Johnson continued to have confidence in the education secretary.

The Tory grandee Nicholas Soames tweeted: “What could have been in the prime minister’s mind that led him to appoint so mere, so unreliable, so wholly unsuitable a man to one of the most important jobs in government?”

Students protest
Students protest outside Gavin Williamson’s South Staffordshire constituency office on Monday Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

Roger Taylor, the chair of Ofqual, acknowledged the standardised system had caused widespread anguish and damaged public confidence, and apologised to those affected.

“There was no easy solution to the problem of awarding exam results when no exams have taken place. Ofqual was asked by the secretary of state [Williamson] to develop a system for awarding calculated grades, which maintained standards and ensured that grades were awarded broadly in line with previous years. Our goal has always been to protect the trust that the public rightly has in educational qualifications.

“But we recognise that while the approach we adopted attempted to achieve these goals, we also appreciate that it has also caused real anguish and damaged public confidence. Expecting schools to submit appeals where grades were incorrect placed a burden on teachers when they need to be preparing for the new term and has created uncertainty and anxiety for students. For all of that, we are extremely sorry.”

Earlier in the day, the paymaster general, Penny Mordaunt, had become the first serving UK minister to go public with demands for more help for pupils whose results had been downgraded, tweeting: “This group of young people have lost out on so much already, we must ensure that bright, capable students can progress on their next step. Delaying a year won’t be an option, and it shouldn’t be an option. For many it will mean falling out of education.”

She was among more than 20 Conservative MPs who had made their concerns public by lunchtime. Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, which warned last month about the risks posed by a grading algorithm, called the situation a “national disaster”.

The Worth Less? campaign group, which represents hundreds of secondary school headteachers, welcomed the U-turn. “It’s a relief that this whole unedifying mess has some form of closure,” said Jules White, a secondary school headteacher and leader of Worth Less?. “Students will get a much fairer deal and everyone can be pleased with that.

“Major questions remain, though: why has it taken the DfE so long to resolve matters? Why have Ofqual and the DfE just spent time blaming each other rather than acting on behalf of children, their families and schools?”

The algorithm used by Ofqual for A-levels and GCSEs was mainly based on previous individual exam results and schools’ past performance, hampering high-achieving pupils from disadvantaged schools. Teachers and schools were asked to submit grades, known as centre assessed grades, but in the end these were influential in only a small number of cases. Stories emerged of pupils who dropped from an A to an E and a C to a U. Teachers’ rankings were also used.

The Lib Dem former schools minister David Laws said too much emphasis had been put on avoiding grade inflation. “Ofqual has tried hard to maintain the overall credibility of the exams system this year, but this seems to have come at a very high price to fairness to individual students. In making a choice between guarding exam standards and fairness to individual students, it is much more important to prioritise fairness to students,” he said.