Government U-turn over A Level and GCSE results

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

England's education secretary has admitted the A-level moderation system was "unfair" after announcing all students would be given their predicted grades.

Speaking after announcing the U-turn, Gavin Williamson said he realised over the weekend there were “unfairnesses” within the grades system and said "it was the right thing to act."

Mr Williamson said he "constantly asked for reassurance about the fairness of the system.

“Fairness to make sure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds didn’t suffer, make sure that children from ethnic minority backgrounds are not in a situation where they were unfairly downgraded.

“And as we got the results we always understandably ask for that reassurance and that confirmation that this has been done fairly and in the best interests of students,” he said.

“But at the weekend, as more evidence came in, it was clear that we needed to act. That’s what we have done.”

The devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland also announced they were moving to teacher-assessed grades.

Following criticism from students, headteachers and a backlash by Tory MPs, grades will now be based on teachers’ assessments rather than the controversial algorithm devised by regulator Ofqual.

A temporary cap on the number of places that universities can offer to students has been lifted in the wake of the fiasco.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mr Williamson had previously defended the “robust” and “dependable” system, which saw almost 40% of grades reduced from teachers’ predictions.

Mr Johnson, who is on holiday in Scotland, held crisis talks with Mr Williamson and senior officials on Monday morning.

The change will also apply to GCSE results in England, which are due to be released on Thursday.

The process had been particularly criticised for hitting children from disadvantaged backgrounds worse.

The algorithm used to replace exams marked pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds more harshly than students from non-disadvantaged backgrounds.

In an interview, the education secretary said the gxovernment had sought reassurances that the exam results were done in the best interests of students.

Mr Williamson did not categorically confirm whether he retains confidence in Ofqual, but said the body had worked “incredibly hard” to ensure fairness.

Ofqual chairman Roger Taylor apologised for the “uncertainty and anxiety” caused by the fiasco.

Students who were awarded a higher grade by the moderation process will be allowed to keep it, but for many pupils, their teachers’ predictions could see their grades increased.

Student Lina Asaah told ITV News: "I feel really tired after everything we’ve gone through these last five days, I didn’t think it needed to take this long to reach this decision, so many extreme measures had to be taken.

"It has a long way to go to rebuilding faith and trust in the government but I’m really happy with today’s result at least."

Her father Ebenezer Asaah said he has another daughter waiting for her GCSE results on Thursday, so Monday's u-turn was welcome news for his family.

"I am over the moon," he told ITV News.

"The news is... I am so, so, so happy, trust me I am over the moon, I am probably going to celebrate tonight.

"It’s been a good fight and I’m really proud of her."

Asked why the climbdown had been made, Ofqual chairman Roger Taylor said: “What changed was seeing the experience of young people receiving grades and being distressed at the need to then go and appeal grades where they felt they were wrong.

“This was causing anxiety for young people, it was putting an administrative burden on teachers at a time when they needed to be preparing for a new school term.

“Seeing this we realised we had taken the wrong road here and we needed to change course.”

He also said the latest decision would not apply to BTECs.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who said last week "nothing should be ruled out" including a following Scotland's climbdown, in order to resolve the problem, said on Monday: "It's right that the government has finally made this U-turn but you can't mask the frustration and anger and distress that this has caused thousands of young people and their families and so yet again what we're seeing is a government that is slow and incompetent.

"This should have been thought through from the start - this problem has been there for months and the government hasn't sorted it out.

"It then came to the wrong decision last week, refused to change its mind until today, and now that's a huge amount of unravelling that has to be done. But don't underestimate the distress and anger this has caused thousands of young people who've seen their futures all over the place over the last few days."

In an earlier tweet he called the Tories’ handling of the situation "a complete fiasco".  

“Incompetence has become this Government’s watchword, whether that is on schools, testing or care homes," Mr Starmer tweeted.

“Boris Johnson’s failure to lead is holding Britain back.”

Shadow education secretary Kate Green tweeted: “Well done to all students, parents and teachers who have campaigned for this u-turn. I am so pleased GCSE & A level results will be on basis of teacher assessment as you and @UKLabour called for. You deserve it!”

A-level and AS-level candidates in Northern Ireland will be awarded grades predicted by their teachers when they are higher.

Stormont education minister Peter Weir said he expected grades to inflate by more than 10% following the abandonment of centralised standardisation.

Students received their A-level results last week. Credit: PA Images

He said: “Whilst standardisation is normally an important feature of awarding qualifications, these are truly unique circumstances and this approach is now being adopted across the UK.

“This is why I have taken this decision today.”

Addressing concerns about capacity problems at universities, Mr Williamson said the government was "working very closely with the university sector" to ensure as many students as possible got a place at their first choice.

“We expect universities to be flexible. We expect them to go above and beyond to be able to honour those commitments but we also recognise, you know, that’s why today we’ve lifted the student number caps in order for universities to be able to expand and put extra capacity into the system," he said.

In a statement from Ucas (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) said, the organisation said it would be "issuing new advice for students and schools."

It said: “Ucas is working with Universities UK and the education sector and whilst the decision is with the individual university, we will do everything we can to support students to use their CAGs to secure the best possible outcome.”

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Queen Mary University of London tweeted that it would guarantee a place to any students who had originally missed but now met the terms of their offer.

Cambridge University has addressed the Government’s U-turn on A-level exam results, saying that it will “be in touch” with all students who held an offer at the university.

The University and College Union welcomed Mr Williamson’s U-turn, but said the Education Secretary must now provide universities with substantial financial support so they could protect all jobs, welcome students safely next term and continue to provide world-leading teaching and research.

Students protested against Ofqual's decision to remove guidance for those hoping to challenge their grades. Credit: PA

General secretary Jo Grady said: “Too many students have had their futures turned upside down because of the mess caused by this Government."

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), called the Government’s handling of exam grades a “shameful episode”.

She warned: “For many students this announcement will generate further uncertainty, if they have been rejected from their first-choice course and university on the basis of the inaccurate and unjust Ofqual awarding process.

“Young people have suffered enough. They have few chances in the jobs market as the country faces rising unemployment and recession.

“Gavin Williamson should now announce that the cap on university places is lifted, so that more young people, who have worked so hard for their A-levels, can continue their studies and fulfil their potential.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), also welcomed the decision “to put an end to the grading fiasco”.

The Scottish Government was forced into a U-turn last week after a backlash about the moderation system used there, giving advance notice of the chaos elsewhere in the UK.

But UK Government ministers had previously insisted they would not follow the example set in Holyrood.

Mr Williamson had claimed there would be “no U-turn, no change” and a shift like Scotland would lead to “rampant grade inflation”.