The exams U-turn is an act of damage limitation

18 August 2020

1:35 AM

18 August 2020

1:35 AM

After a bruising few days for Boris Johnson and his ministers over the grading system for A-levels and GCSEs, the government has today performed a U-turn. Following growing outrage both from disappointed students and frustrated MPs, the chair of exams body Ofqual has announced a change in the grading system. In a pre-recorded clip, Roger Taylor said:

Expecting schools to submit appeals where grades were incorrect placed a burden on teachers when they need to be preparing for the new term and has created uncertainty and anxiety for students.

For all of that, we are extremely sorry.We have therefore decided that students be awarded their centre assessment for this summer – that is, the grade their school or college estimated was the grade they would most likely have achieved in their exam – or the moderated grade, whichever is higher.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has also apologised for the distress caused. With the controversial Ofqual algorithm gone – which saw disadvantaged pupils among those more likely to have their predicted grades marked down – GCSE pupils on Thursday will instead receive their predicted grades. Meanwhile, A-level grades will be readjusted ‘as soon as possible’.

For many, this change couldn’t come soon enough. Yet the Education Secretary claimed as recently as Saturday that there would be no U-turn. That position became increasingly unsustainable after Ofqual announced it would review its appeal process. The resulting confusion reignited anger and led to more Tory MPs coming forward to attack the decision.

By Monday lunchtime, it wasn’t just backbenchers taking to social media to voice their grievance, ministers were too – with both Penny Mordaunt and Johnny Mercer going public with their concerns. The growing backbench revolt was one factor in the decision made by No. 10 with the Department for Education to drastically change the policy. No. 10 was initially supportive of Ofqual’s algorithm. But it was felt that as more cases came to light of disadvantaged students losing out, a new plan had to be put forward. There was concern from the top that the ongoing row was undermining the party’s promises around ‘levelling up’.

So, will this be enough to calm the row? There remain loose ends. Many students have already missed out on their preferred university place as a result of grades from the algorithm. There will now be pressure on universities to provide more places. In order to aid this process, Williamson has announced that the cap on university places has been lifted. However, some have already indicated they will only be able to offer places for next year’s courses.

Yet this ought to be enough to cool much of the anger in the parliamentary Conservative party. For many MPs, this row is already well past the point of having a damage-free option. Instead, it’s now a matter of damage limitation and this is widely viewed as the least bad option. With GCSE results due on Thursday, there is relief that a repeat of last week’s fiasco can now be avoided.

As for Williamson, it’s safe to say that he is not flavour of the month among his colleagues. The annoyance is down to a number of factors. MPs are frustrated the Department for Education allowed Scottish Conservatives to attack the SNP for using a similar algorithm when they would have known a similar fate awaited the government. Then there are those who believe a different education secretary – such as Michael Gove or even Damian Hinds – with more experience of the sector would have spotted the problems earlier.

But for all the anger, it’s unlikely Williamson will resign or face the sack. The exams system has hurt the devolved administrations too – even if some think the Education Secretary made a bad situation worse. Crucially, the former chief whip remains valued in Downing Street – not first and foremost for his education credentials but instead his skills in party management. Despite this, it has been another bruising episode for the government.<//>

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