Exam regulator tells MPs it advised education secretary Gavin Williamson not to cancel exams – but he ignored it
Williamson told Ofqual to press ahead with calculated grades system which led to last month’s A-level results crisis
Ofqual admits “fundamental mistake” in believing algorithm system “would ever be acceptable to public”
Gavin Williamson was told not to cancel A-level and GCSE exams but ignored the advice, the chair of beleaguered exam regulator Ofqual has said.
Roger Taylor told MPs the controversial calculated grades system – which resulted in 40% of A-level students being downgraded before a dramatic government U-turn reversed this – was the regulator’s third choice, but the one picked by Williamson.
Education secretary Williamson cancelled exams in March amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Taylor, who like Williamson came under fire during the exams crisis last month, told the House of Commons education committee on Wednesday: “At the outset, our initial advice to the secretary of state was that the best way to handle this was to try to hold exams in a socially distanced manner.
“Our second option was to delay exams.
“The third option, if neither of these were acceptable, would be to have to try and look at some form of calculated grade.
“That was our advice to ministers. It was the secretary of state who then subsequently took the decision and announced – without further consultation from Ofqual – that exams were to be cancelled and a system of calculated grades was to be implemented.”
Taylor, while saying Williamson ignored Ofqual’s advice not to cancel exams, admitted the calculated grades system then became “our responsibility”.
Ofqual devised an algorithm aimed at standardising results, but this led to 40% of students being downgraded, prompting widespread outrage on A-level results day. The system appeared to unfairly hinder high-achieving students from lower-performing schools.
Four days later, the government U-turned and allowed students to be graded based on teacher predictions if they were higher than the algorithm’s scores.
Taylor also told the committee: “We fully accept our share of responsibility for what has gone wrong this year.
“The fundamental mistake was to believe that this would ever be acceptable to the public.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green later rounded on Williamson, calling for him to “take responsibility for his own incompetence”.
She said: “The evidence given by Ofqual today has raised serious questions about Gavin Williamson’s role in this summer’s exam fiasco.
“Gavin Williamson has repeatedly tried to blame Ofqual and officials for the crisis over exams. It is now clear he was responsible.”
Senior civil servant Jonathan Slater was removed from his post as permanent secretary at the Department for Education following the controversy.
On Tuesday, Williamson apologised once again to students who suffered “a great deal of stress and uncertainty” due to “inconsistent and unfair” A-level results from Ofqual’s algorithm.
He told MPs the government was determined for exams to go ahead next year, adding that it is working to ensure “this is done as smoothly as possible”.
Ofqual, which launched a consultation in July proposing to delay the start of GCSE exams to 7 June next year, has not yet made a decision on the timetable for the 2021 exam series.