Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.
Pressure is building for Boris Johnson to remove Gavin Williamson as education secretary amid an avalanche of criticism over the government’s handling of the A-level crisis.
Former Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw led calls for Williamson to take the blame, saying “political leaders have to carry the can” after regulator Ofqual’s algorithm saw 40% of students’ results downgraded, with poorer teenagers disproportionately hit.
It comes as students and parents in Williamson’s South Staffordshire seat were set to stage a protest outside his constituency office and a string of Tory MPs spoke out about the debacle.
Williamson is a staunch ally of the prime minister’s and a former chief whip and Johnson has refused to give an interview to the media as criticism has grown.
“There has to be political responsibility,” said Wilshaw. “Like all things at the end of the day, somebody has to carry the can and the politicians and political leaders have to carry the can.
“The great danger for Gavin Williamson at the moment is that he is losing confidence. He’s losing confidence of head teachers around the country who have seen this happen.”
He said the A-levels had been a “terrible farce” but it was “no laughing matter”, with “expectations dashed” and “life chances devastated”.
“Ofqual have been almost invisible while all this is going on,” Wilshaw said.
He then went on to lay into Williamson’s record as education secretary, saying: “He hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory over the pandemic period with all sorts of changes of direction, saying primary schools will be open when they obviously couldn’t be under social distancing rules, saying every poor child will receive a laptop and obviously that didn’t happen, the school meals voucher system wasn’t working.
“And so he’s losing the dressing room, if you like. Headteachers have got to feel confident that they are being well-led by the Department for Education who are holding this agency, Ofqual, to account.”
Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Tory leader, who has returned to lead the MSPs in Holyrood, also sounded the alarm on Times Radio on Sunday, saying MPs should show their teeth to government.
She said: “This is not just one of these bubble issues. This is something that cuts through everything.
“MPs should be telling the chief whip, including Conservative MPs, that this will absolutely be one of the things that, even people who don’t even pay attention to politics, will be all over because this is their child’s future.”
Former Conservative education secretary, Lord Baker, who introduced GCSEs, said the week had been “disastrous for the government”, adding: “I can judge the damage [that] has been done both to the government and to the party, and it’s very profound.”
Asked how the scandal has been handled by Williamson and the schools minister Nick Gibb, he said: “The mathematical formula they’ve used for the algorithm is flawed, deeply flawed, because it produces 40% failures.
“And I don’t know what happened to the political antennae of Gavin Williamson and Mr Gibb, the school’s minister – I suspect Mr Gibb was mainly the principal author of this, because he does understand how schools work. And they should realise that when a student has lost their chance of going to the medical school they wanted to go to, or the university they wanted to go to, it’s gonna be on their record forever that they’ve failed, you’ll never forgive the government or the prime minister that did this.”
He called on the ministers to perform a U-turn on the algorithm, saying: “They should have realised that if you create 40% failures, you don’t just make aggrieved students, there are aggrieved parents, [...] there are aggrieved grandparents, there are aggrieved friends and relations and the damage is absolutely enormous, so if you’re in a hole stop digging.”
Poole MP Robert Syms, meanwhile, told Times Radio on Monday morning: ″We watched Scotland and the SNP get into trouble, and they sort of got into a bit of a hole. And they got out of it and took some criticism. And we’ve just climbed into the same hole, but we’re not getting out of it; we’re still digging at the moment.”
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith also joined criticism and said the algorithm-awarded A-level grades should be abandoned, with teacher assessments or mocks used instead.
“No algorithm is going to sort our problem out, it’s a human issue,” he told LBC Radio.
He said concerns about “grade inflation” could be dealt with by accepting that 2020 would not be used as a benchmark for future years because some of the grades would have been “overcooked” by teachers.
He went on to say: “The idea that you have an algorithm to figure out what they might have done in an exam is really impossible and I think that’s where the big mistakes will be made.”
Tory MP Stephen Hammond was asked on Sky News if he had confidence in Williamson, to which he replied: “Gavin Williamson needs to spend today working with Ofqual and get this sorted out.
“As I said, we can play the blame game in the future. Clearly there are a number of my colleagues who are deeply frustrated and you’ve heard them say what they have to say.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer, meanwhile, took aim at Boris Johnson, saying the prime minister should get a grip.
He tweeted: “Weeks of chaos, confusion and incompetence.
“We need a return to teacher assessments for A-level results and urgent action to avoid the same injustice for GCSE students.
“Boris Johnson has been invisible during this crisis. He needs to take personal responsibility, and fix it.”
Deputy leader Angela Rayner has also said Johnson should take “personal responsibility” ahead of this week’s GCSEs results, which as it stands will draw on the same algorithm.
Rayner said: “Gavin Williamson’s handling of this year’s exam results has been a complete and utter fiasco. We have had weeks of chaos, confusion and incompetence.
“And yet Boris Johnson has been nowhere to be seen. He has been watching from the sidelines while a generation of young people are being robbed of their future.
“We cannot have another week like this. The prime minister must now take personal responsibility for this crisis by addressing the country in the next 24 hours to explain precisely how he will end this historic injustice.”