Ofqual suggests Williamson should accept blame for exams fiasco

Many students blame Education Secretary Gavin Williamson for the A-levels exams fiasco. Credit: PA

Exams regulator Ofqual has suggested Education Secretary Gavin Williamson should accept his share of the blame for the A-levels exams fiasco, a Commons Select Committee has heard.

The chair of Ofqual, Roger Taylor, told the Education Committee that the regulator accepts responsibility for creating the doomed algorithm that downgraded exam results, but said the decision to use a standardisation formula "was taken by the secretary of state".

He said he understands "there is now a desire to attribute blame" and accepted "the implementation of that approach was entirely down to Ofqual" but added how the regulator worked in a "much more collaborative way" with the Department for Education than it usually would have, due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Mr Taylor revealed to the committee that Ofqual wanted the 2020 exams to go ahead in a socially distanced manner, but was overruled by Education Secretary Williamson who wanted grades to be awarded through a standardisation formula using teacher assessments.

He told MPs that it was a "fundamental mistake" to believe Ofqual's algorithm for awarding grades "would ever be acceptable to the public".

He admits Ofqual knew some students would have their scores unfairly downgraded, but said there was an agreement that standardisation was a "good idea".

Angry students protested against the exam results and called for Gavin Williamson's resignation. Credit: PA

It was accepted that teacher's assessments would vary across the country, so the "principle of moderating" them was a "sound one", he said.

"We knew, however, that there would be specific issues associated with this approach.

"In particular, statistical standardisation of this kind will inevitably result in a very small proportion of quite anomalous results that would need to be corrected by applying human judgement through an appeals process.

"For example, we were concerned about bright students in historically low attaining schools. We identified that approximately 0.2% of young peoples’ grades were affected by this but that it was not possible to determine in advance which cases warranted a change to grades.

He rejected any suggestion that the education secretary was not aware of issues with the standardisation formula, but said Ofqual accepted responsibility."We kept the Department for Education fully informed about the work we were doing and the approach we intended to take to qualifications, the risks and impact on results as they emerged.

"However, we are ultimately responsible for the decisions that fall to us as the regulator."

Ofqual's controversial algorithm for awarding calculated grades had appeared to boost private schools' performance and led to many other A-level students having their results downgraded following moderation.

But addressing the Education Select Committee, Mr Taylor insisted that the standardisation process "reduced the advantage enjoyed by private schools".

He said: "That is why we felt it was fairer to use the standardisation process as a mechanism to ensure the greatest possible fairness in the circumstances.

Sir Gavin Williamson has been told to apologise to MPs for his conduct Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

"We do acknowledge that the level of fairness achieved was not felt to be acceptable but it did improve the level of fairness."

Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the committee, summarised Ofqual's defence of the exam chaos as "not me guv".

He questioned why Ofqual did not use the time between receiving schools' grades in June and results day in August to test the algorithm "rather than wait until the eleventh hour to realise the algorithm produced discrepancies".

Mr Halfon said: "Perhaps some of the wild anomalies that sixth form colleges saw surely would have become apparent much sooner.

"In essence, what I am asking is, should you have done your own mock exam in terms of the algorithm?"

Responding to the concerns, Dr Michelle Meadows, executive director for strategy, risk and research at Ofqual told MPs: "We tested the model thoroughly.

"We were confident that the model that we chose was the most accurate overall and the most accurate for those different groups of students."

Mr Taylor added that the risks with the model were raised with the Department for Education (DfE) "throughout the process".

Sally Collier resigned from her role as head of Ofqual last week, while the DfE announced that permanent secretary Jonathan Slater would be standing down a day later.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said on Tuesday that there would be a decision “very soon” on whether the next exams would start late to allow for more teaching time during the disruption.

Mr Williamson on Tuesday apologised once again to students who suffered “a great deal of stress and uncertainty” due to “inconsistent and unfair” A-level outcomes from Ofqual’s algorithm.

The Education Secretary told MPs the government is determined that exams will go ahead in 2021, adding they were working with the sector to ensure “this is done as smoothly as possible”.