Exams fiasco: Ofqual chief claims Gavin Williamson ignored its advice

Roger Taylor, chair of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation 
Roger Taylor, chair of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation

The head of the exam watchdog has accused Gavin Williamson of ignoring their advice over the grades fiasco, saying that ministers gave him an “impossible task”.

Roger Taylor, chair of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) said it warned the Education Secretary in March that axing A-levels and GCSEs should be the “worst-case scenario”.

He told the education select committee that Ofqual advised ministers in March to first consider running socially-distanced exams or postponing them – but two days later Gavin Williamson announced that all exams would be cancelled.

“Our advice was to try and run exams, secondly delay the exams. The worst case scenario is calculated grades,” he said. “The decision obviously then is a political decision".

It was a "fundamental mistake" to believe Ofqual's algorithm for awarding grades "would ever be acceptable to the public", Mr Taylor said.

“To try to deliver comparable qualification results in the absence of students having taken any assessments  proved to be an impossible task,” he wrote in a letter to the committee.

Mr Taylor said that prior to Mr Williamson’s decision to axe A-levels and GCSEs, Ofqual submitted a paper to his office which set out in “very vivid detail” the risks that this poised.

“From the very outset we said it is an enormously difficult thing to do in a way that will command public support,” Mr Taylor said. “However, we have to have due regard for Government policy.”

MPs were also told how the regulator’s senior officials warned the Education Secretary against announcing an eleventh hour change to the appeals process based on mock exam results – but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Mr Taylor said he told Mr Williamson that this was an “extremely risky” policy, adding that Ofqual did not believe it would result in students being handed “valid and trustworthy grades”.

“The Secretary of State informed me that they were planning to change this policy in a very significant way by allowing an entirely new way exams could be awarded through a mock exams appeal,” he said.

“Our advice to the Secretary of State at this point was that we could not be confident that this could be delivered within the stat duties of Ofqual to ensure that valid and trustworthy grades were being issued.

“The Secretary of State - as he is entitled to do - nonetheless announced that would be the policy of the Government.”

Ofqual attempted to come up with advice for schools based on the mock exam appeal policy and checked with Mr Williamson’s office before publishing the advice.

But just hours after publishing the advice – which said that pupils could now use their teachers’ predicted grades as a basis for an appeal since they were in fact more accurate than a mock exam result - Ofqual said it was “reviewing” the guidance.

After publishing the guidance online, both Sally Collier, the former chief regulator who stood down last month, and Mr Taylor were contacted by the Education Secretary who told them that their guidance “was in fact not to his mind in line with Government policy”.

A meeting of Ofqual’s board was convened late at around 10pm Saturday night, and crisis talks continued throughout Sunday.

“I think at this stage we realised we were in a situation that was rapidly getting out of control,” Mr Taylor told MPs.

“There were policies being recommended and strongly advocated by the Secretary of State that we thought would not be consistent with our legal duties. And there was additional a growing risk around delivering any form of mock appeals results that would be acceptable as a reasonable way to award grades.”

By Sunday evening, Mr Williamson agreed that anything short of a full U-turn on grades would “simply be indefensible”, according to Mr Taylor.

Julie Swan, Ofqual’s executive director for general qualifications, told MPs about the multiple warnings that ministers were given about the flaws of the algorithm adding that “everyone throughout the process was aware of the risks”.

“When we first gave our advice on the options on the March 16, which was written for ministers, we did say it would be challenging if not impossible to attempt to moderate estimates in a way that is fair for all this years’ students," she said.

“A paper to the general public sector ministerial implementation group on May 21 highlighted the risk of widespread dissatisfaction with grades awarded from both individual students and schools and colleges and the risk to public confidence.

“And then we briefed Number Ten on August 7, and again the paper written there was very alert to the risks both to disadvantaged and to outlier students, to centres who had expected improved grades this year, and to the impact on low entry cohorts including independent schools.

“We have been briefing and we were challenged throughout on the risks – but it’s the lack of alternatives that has been the problem throughout.”

Mr Taylor confirmed during the select committee hearing that the system for calculating grades “did give an advantage to private schools” due to the fact that they were more likely to have low student numbers rendering the algorithm inapplicable and meaning that teachers’ predictions were used from the outset.

His remarks came after Robert Halfon MP, the Tory chair of the education select committee, asked about Ofqual’s own admission that their algorithm “benefitted smaller schools and disadvantaged larger schools”.

Mr Halfron asked: “Is it not extraordinary to say we knew about it but were unable to find a solution to the problem? Why didn’t you ask for help?”

Mr Taylor responded: “We did know about it. Given the choice between standardisation and not using standardisation, the impact is better for students from a low socio-economic status with standardised results.

“That is why we felt that despite the known issues with small centres. The same is true of private schools, it did give an advantage to private schools due to the inability to standardise small cohorts.”

Defending the algorithm, Mr Taylor said “there were no easy choices, there were no easy options”, insisting that it "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.

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

A Department for Education spokesperson said that exams are the fairest form of assessment and they never wanted to cancel them.

“We listened to views from a range of parties, including Ofqual, and given the public health requirements at the time, made what was a very difficult decision on the basis that it was a necessary step to fight the spread of coronavirus,” they said.