Questions remain for Williamson after U-turn on GCSE and A-level grades

Gavin Williamson Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is facing calls for clarity for students and universities after his major U-turn over GCSE and A-level grades in England.

Mr Williamson back-tracked to say results estimated by teachers could be used after mounting anger over the downgrading of about 40% of A-level grades by exams regulator Ofqual on the basis of a controversial algorithm.

The Cabinet minister apologised for the “distress” caused by the abandoned policy which was intended to give fair results to pupils who could not sit exams because of the coronavirus crisis.

Tory MP and chair of the education select committee Robert Halfon wrote in The Sun: “This is a mega mess. But it is better to right something that is wrong than proceed with disaster.”

Thousands will now receive increased grades but questions remained unanswered for universities, which have had a temporary cap on places scrapped, and students, who still face uncertainties over university places.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, called for “urgent clarification” from the Government on a number of “crucial issues”.

He said the change “at this late stage” will “cause challenges” for capacity and staffing as he called on ministers to “step up and support universities”.

Other questions included whether students who have accepted an offer based on moderated grades can switch institutions, and when students will receive their new grades.

There is also uncertainty over Btec results, with Mr Williamson saying his department is working with awarding body Pearson to extend the change to the vocational qualifications.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

The Westminster Government’s U-turn in time for the GCSE results in England on Thursday brings the nation into line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which will all use teacher-predicted grades.

Mr Williamson said he acted after realising over the weekend that there were “real concerns” about results, but his intervention at such a late stage led some critics to call for his resignation.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mr Williamson had previously defended the “robust” system, while the Education Secretary had insisted there would be “no U-turn, no change” and said a shift could lead to “rampant grade inflation”.

Gavin Williamson with Boris Johnson Credit: Leon Neal/PA

Mr Halfon said in The Sun the Conservative Party had lost one of its lives in the “fiasco”.

He wrote it was blue-collar workers who gave the Tories the “thumbs-up” at the last general election, but it was “disadvantaged kids who were let down by bungling bureaucrats in this marking chaos. This must never happen again”.

Ofqual’s chairman Roger Taylor admitted the regulator had gone down the “wrong road” and apologised.

The algorithm was meant to moderate the process of awarding grades, preventing teachers awarding what the exams watchdog described as “implausibly high” marks to pupils.

But it came under fire over its perceived unfairness and the way it particularly appeared to penalise bright children from disadvantaged schools.

Mr Williamson accepted it had produced more “significant inconsistencies” than could be rectified through an appeals process, saying it became “apparent” to him that more action would need to be taken after Ofqual released additional data about its algorithm.

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

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

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The Government has had months to sort out exams and has now been forced into a screeching U-turn after days of confusion.”

Shadow education secretary Kate Green wrote to Mr Williamson with 15 questions, including asking when students would receive their new grades and whether there would still be a free appeals process.

She welcomed the Government having “finally reversed its position” after mounting calls from students, teachers and Conservative MPs.

“However, the confusion of the past few weeks, and delay in making these important decisions, mean there are now important outstanding issues on which students, parents and institutions need urgent clarity,” she added.

Whether students who have accepted an offer based on their moderated grades can switch institutions, and how universities will be supported by the move to scrap the temporary limit on places, were among her queries.

She also called for Mr Williamson to confirm no universities will be “allowed to fail financially” as a result of the changes and for the Cabinet minister to set out the position for Btec students’ grades.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education was moved to deny that its top civil servant Jonathan Slater was leaving his job after a suggestion he could be ousted.

“The permanent secretary is not leaving his post and is focused on the job in hand, delivering the Government’s agenda alongside ministers and the wider department,” a spokeswoman said.