Boris Johnson sacks education mandarin and blames exam fiasco on ‘mutant algorithm’

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman

Boris Johnson has been accused of throwing civil service leaders under the bus after he sacked a senior official at the Department for Education and blamed the A-levels exams fiasco on a “mutant algorithm”.

The prime minister acknowledged the stress caused by the situation – which eventually resulted in a U-turn with A-level and GCSE grades in England awarded based on teachers’ assessments rather than the algorithm.

The Department for Education announced its permanent secretary was to step down at the end of next week after Mr Johnson "concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership”.

The announcement that Jonathan Slater will be replaced comes a day after Sally Collier resigned from her role as head of exams regulator Ofqual.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the senior public servants’ union FDA, said the news shows the government "will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability".

Department for Education Permanent Secretary Jonathan Slater has been forced to resign. Credit: UK Gov

Relations between Number 10 and Whitehall have been strained, with Mr Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings backing a major shake-up of the civil service.

Mr Penman said: “After this Government’s continuous anonymous briefings to the press, trust between ministers and civil servants is already at an all-time low and this will only damage it further.”

Education mandarin Mr Slater will stand down on September 1, in advance of the end of his tenure in spring 2021.

Susan Acland-Hood, currently interim second permanent secretary, will take over as acting permanent secretary.

The PM, addressing pupils at a school in Coalville, Leicestershire, acknowledged that the exams situation had been “stressful” for those awaiting A-level and GCSE results.

“I’m afraid your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm,” he told them.

“I know how stressful that must have been for pupils up and down the country.

“I’m very, very glad that it has finally been sorted out.”

Mr Johnson had previously claimed that the algorithm-based grades would be “robust” and “dependable”.

Despite being forced into an embarrassing U-turn, the prime minister offered his full support to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

The education secretary admitted the system was "unfair" but appeared to blame the controversy on exams regulator Ofqual.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green echoed Mr Penman, saying "civil servants have time and time again taken the fall for the incompetence and failures of ministers".

“Boris Johnson is shamelessly trying to avoid taking responsibility for the exams fiasco that his government created.

“Responsibility for this shambles lies squarely with Downing Street and the Department for Education, who set out how they wanted the algorithm to work and were warned weeks in advance of issues, but repeatedly refused to address the problems they had created.”

Mr Penman said Mr Williamson's ability to keep his senior Cabinet role shows "ministerial accountability is dead and the message to civil servants is that they are expendable the moment life gets tough for a minister".

He added: "Those who have dedicated their lives to public service are being discarded without hesitation to keep scrutiny from the Government’s door.

“Whilst the origins of the exams fiasco may be complex, the solutions for this Government are simple: scapegoating civil servants."

Ofqual's Ms Collier resigned as chief regulator after four years, just days before she was due to face questions from the Commons Education Select Committee over the way hundreds of thousands of students had their exam results downgraded.

In interviews following the U-turn, Education Secretary Williamson appeared to shift blame onto Ofqual for what happened.

He said he was assured by the exams regulator that the standardisation formula was fair, but said it "didn't deliver".

Mr Williamson denied forcing Ms Collier out of her post at the watchdog.

“This was a decision that Sally made, an incredibly dedicated and committed public servant, and in discussions with the Ofqual board, which, as you’re aware, is a non-ministerial Government department,” he told BBC’s Breakfast.

Asked by ITV News on Wednesday morning if he intended to step down over the fiasco, Gavin Williamson said he is "absolutely focused" on the job.

But Labour frontbencher Bill Esterson said: “Why is the secretary of state still in post? Two scapegoats can’t save him.

“The buck stops with Williamson. Sooner or later, he has to go too.”