Six Questions Gavin Williamson Still Needs To Answer About The Exams Fiasco

Students have got their grades – now it's the education secretary's turn to be examined.

It’s been more than a week since the alarm was first sounded over England’s disastrous handling of exam results, and the government is desperate to move on.

None of the senior Tories HuffPost UK spoke to on Thursday morning was willing to talk about the scandal or the future of Gavin Williamson, the embattled education secretary.

To recap: with students unable to take exams because of the coronavirus lockdown, it had been decided that their grades would be decided using a combination of their predicted grades, teachers’ rankings, and an algorithm based on schools’ previous results.

This meant 40% of predicted A-level results were downgraded and thousands of pupils missed out on places at university. Students in less-advantaged areas were the hardest hit, while private schools enjoyed the biggest jump in the percentage of top grades.

On Monday, under huge pressure from basically everyone, Williamson announced a huge U-turn in government policy, saying A-level and GCSE students would be given the grades their teachers had predicted.

The government may want to leave the row behind, but there are several key questions it still hasn’t answered.

1. When did Gavin Williamson find out that the grading system would give thousands of students the wrong results?

Students marching to the constituency office of Gavin Williamson on Monday, before the government's U-turn was announced
Students marching to the constituency office of Gavin Williamson on Monday, before the government's U-turn was announced

It’s a key question in this whole fiasco – did the education secretary know what was going to happen before the first A-level results envelope had been opened on Thursday?

According to an exclusive in The Times, Williamson was warned at the beginning of July by Sir Jon Coles, the former director-general of the Department of Education, that Ofqual’s results algorithm would only be 75% accurate, at best.

A government source told the newspaper that Williamson had raised the concern with the exam board after speaking to Coles, but was given reassurances.

Yet on Monday, when he announced the U-turn over grades, Williamson said the disparity in results had only become clear to him “over the weekend”.

“Over the weekend it became clearer to me that there were [...] a number of students who were getting grades that frankly they shouldn’t have been getting and should’ve been doing a lot better,” he said.

If this is the case, it raises a further question about how he could have been so ignorant of the crisis for a full two days.

2. Was the grading algorithm lawful in the first place?

The Labour Party has called for Williamson to publish the legal advice he was given about the exam results algorithm, with opposition ministers – including the shadow attorney general Charlie Falconer – insisting that the formula was “unlawful”.

In a letter to the education secretary and Ofqual, Labour said the weight given to schools’ previous results had caused “a mass of discriminatory impacts”.

“It is bound to disadvantage a whole range of groups with protected characteristics, in breach of a range of anti-discrimination legislation.”

3. Why were BTec results left out of the U-turn on grades – and then included at the very last minute?

A student collecting her GCSE results in London – but BTec students will not get their grades on results day
A student collecting her GCSE results in London – but BTec students will not get their grades on results day

When it was announced that students’ A-level and GCSE grades would be awarded on the basis of teachers’ predictions on Monday, there was no mention of BTec pupils’ results.

On Tuesday, Ofqual said its moderation algorithm was not used in the majority of vocational and technical qualifications (VTQ) – including BTecs.

Then on Wednesday, just hours before students were due to pick up their results, exam board Pearson asked schools and colleges not to publish BTec results to give them more time to recalculate grades.

A spokesperson for Pearson said the BTec results would be regraded “to address concerns about unfairness in relation to A-levels and GCSEs and ensure no BTEC student is disadvantaged”.

It came after education unions and the Labour Party called on the government to provide clarity on why BTEC students had been left out of Monday’s grading U-turn.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The awarding organisations have decided to take more time in order to make absolutely certain no student is inadvertently worse off due to changes in how grades are assessed.”

They added: “Ofqual, Ucas and the relevant awarding organisations are also working to ensure students seeking entrance to university are not disadvantaged, and we are working with colleges and other further education providers to make sure students looking to continue into further education can still do so.”

But why did it take so long to decide to review BTec results? And what was wrong with the grades that meant they did, eventually, need changing?

4. Will the university places crisis roll over into 2021?

A lecture theatre filled with students
A lecture theatre filled with students
skynesher via Getty Images

On Thursday, the government revealed it had agreed to lift the cap on the number of places on medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and teaching courses following the U-turn on A-level grades.

It came after HuffPost UK spoke to a number of aspiring doctors who were left without a place at medical school following the exam results fiasco.

A number of universities had already said they would have to give students places on courses in 2021 just to honour all their offers to study.

Durham University has promised a bursary and guarantee of accommodation for everyone who defers until 2021 due to “capacity issues”, the BBC reported.

But the government has yet to address how this could affect students finishing their A-levels next year.

Will the cap on university students remain lifted? Or will they be fighting for fewer places on courses, with a number already taken up by this year’s school leavers?

Moreover, what will universities do about courses that have limited space because of practical elements, and the risk of breaching staff-student ratios that could see their courses lose accreditation and become worthless?

5. Will the government have to make further changes to A-levels?

smolaw11 via Getty Images

Pupils in England due to take their A-levels next year are threatening to strike unless changes are made to their exams, claiming they have been “ignored and forgotten” by the government.

Year 12 students who missed out on months of face-to-face teaching this year are demanding a fresh consultation on the 2021 A-levels, saying the government sidelined them when it reduced the GCSE syllabus but not theirs.

They want reduced content in exams, and better guidance on what will happen if there is a second outbreak and further closure of schools past September.

Protests have been planned across the country – in London, Cornwall, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol – with numbers expected to match or even exceed those that took place following the catastrophe of last week’s A-level results.

And participants say they won’t go to school at all if the situation isn’t resolved.

But the government has remained silent, leaving questions hanging about what will happen to the syllabus and next year’s exams.

6. Who is actually to blame?

Education minister Nick Gibb insisted the model was "fair"
Education minister Nick Gibb insisted the model was "fair"
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It’s the question on everyone’s lips – at whose door does blame lie for the absolute chaos of this year’s results season?

Or – more specifically – who is responsible for the algorithm that saw thousands upon thousands of students’ grades downgraded?

On Thursday, education minister Nick Gibb insisted that the Department for Education and exams regulator Ofqual “worked very closely” on the exam-grading algorithm.

He told the BBC’s Today programme: “We worked very closely with the independent regulator in developing the model.”

The Tory MP insisted that the model was “fair” – but that it was implemented incorrectly. In fact, Gibb went as far as to say the algorithm was “very popular”.

Ministers wanted a system that would ensure young people from disadvantaged backgrounds did not see their grades moderated more heavily than anyone else’s, he said.

“There was about a 2% difference [in the extent of the downgrading between the richest and poorest], that’s broadly what we saw in the national results last week, in contrast to what we saw in Scotland, where there was a big gap between disadvantaged pupils.

“And that’s because in this country we had more data about the prior attainment of young people that was built into the model.

“So the model itself was fair, it was very popular, it was widely consulted upon.

“The problem arose in the way in which the three phases of the application of that model – the historic data of the school, the prior attainment of the cohort of pupils at the school, and then the national standard correction – it’s that element of the application of the model that I think there is a concern.”

So, we seemingly know now why the apparently “fair” model failed students – but the government has yet to answer who is to blame for this failed application.


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