Sir Keir Starmer tells government ‘this is no way to run a country’

Gavin Williamson today insisted he intends to stay on as Education Secretary long into the future despite growing calls for him to quit over the A-level results fiasco. 

Mr Williamson yesterday announced a screeching U-turn as the Government said grades will now be based on teachers’ assessments rather than a controversial algorithm developed by regulator Ofqual. 

The algorithm resulted in almost 40 per cent of grades issued being lower than teacher predictions, prompting widespread pupil and parent anger.

Mr Williamson apologised for the ‘distress’ caused by the debacle as tens of thousands of pupils face an uncertain future with universities now trying to find them places on courses which could already be at capacity. 

The Education Secretary said this morning he was ‘incredibly sorry’ but repeatedly refused to say whether he had offered his resignation to Boris Johnson.

Signalling his intention to dig in amid mounting calls for him to resign, Mr Williamson said he is ‘absolutely determined over the coming year that I am going to be delivering the world’s best education system’. 

Mr Williamson attempted to deflect some of the blame for the situation onto Ofqual as he said the Government had been assured that the algorithm ‘would stand scrutiny’. 

Despite the calls for Mr Williamson to be sacked, Government sources have said Mr Johnson values loyalty and that the Education Secretary has been ‘with the Prime Minister from the start’. 

Many Tory MPs believe that Mr Johnson will not be ‘bounced’ into getting rid of one of his Cabinet allies. 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the A-Level results row ‘sums up’ the Government’s ‘incompetent’ handling of the pandemic.  

‘At a time of national emergency, this is no way to run a country,’ he wrote in The Mirror. ‘The Tories’ incompetence is holding Britain back from recovery.’     

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer wrote in the Daily Mirror the Conservatives’ handling of the situation ‘sums up their handling of this pandemic – incompetent’

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his office at the Department of Education in Westminster, London, following the announcement that A-level and GCSE results in England will now be based on teachers’ assessments 

The under-pressure Education Secretary appeared so confident in his position that he posed for pictures in his office yesterday despite the ongoing chaos. 

On Sky News today Mr Williamson said he first became aware of problems with the algorithm at the weekend, and once again appeared to try and blamer regulator Ofqual for the problems. 

He said: ‘Going back a number of weeks obviously we’ve constantly worked with Ofqual and we’ve put challenge, consistent challenge, within the system to have reassurance that this is a system that would work and be fair.

‘Obviously when we saw the Scottish system and the challenges there, working with Ofqual we wanted to put a more robust and stronger appeal process into the system.

‘That’s why we brought forward the triple lock that we put in place before the launch of the exams systems.’

Asked when he first became aware of the problems with the algorithm, he said: ‘Well, it became apparent that there were challenges within the algorithm when we were seeing the results directly coming out and then over the weekend.

‘We’d got concerns before … when we saw what had happened in Scotland, we wanted to have a more robust system put in place.’

Appearing on Sky News today Mr Williamson said he first became aware of problems with the algorithm at the weekend, and said he had confidence the system they put in place was robust

Appearing on Sky News today Mr Williamson said he first became aware of problems with the algorithm at the weekend, and said he had confidence the system they put in place was robust

Students hold placards as they protest outside of the constituency office of Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, as he faced pressure to resign

Students hold placards as they protest outside of the constituency office of Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, as he faced pressure to resign

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the Government had every confidence in the exams system due to the ‘extensive consultation’ carried out.

He told Sky News: ‘When we were in the position as a result of Covid of having to cancel exams, we consulted extensively and widely right across the sector with unions, with the school sector and right across the public.

Backlash as BTECs are left out 

BTEC students were left in limbo last night after they were ruled out of the Government’s exam results U-turn.

Ofqual chairman Roger Taylor confirmed that A-level and GCSE grades would now be calculated on teachers’ assessments – but said the change did not apply to BTECs.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has vowed to fight for BTEC students to be included in the new policy.

Mr Burnham has threatened to sue the Government over its handling of the exams crisis and he said he would pursue the legal action unless another U-turn was made.

At present, BTEC students across the country still face being left with grades calculated by a computer algorithm.

As each BTEC qualification is worth fewer UCAS points than an A-level, the impact of a downgrade is even more severe on BTEC students.

The intervention from Mr Burnham comes after many students complained they have still not found out their final results despite expecting to receive them last Thursday.

Exam board Pearson, the UK’s largest awarding body for qualifications including BTECs, A-levels and GCSEs, admitted that there have been significant delays for hundreds of BTEC results.

It means those affected are unable to confirm their university places even though spaces are being rapidly filled up through the clearing process. The exam board said it was looking into the issue ‘urgently’.

Of the Government’s U-turn on exam results, a spokesman said: ‘For the very small number of grades that were adjusted, we will be reviewing them on a case by case basis.’

‘Ofqual ran one of the largest consultations it’s ever run with over 12,000 responses and there was a broad political consensus about the need to have moderated grades, and that was the route we went down.

‘This was not just in England, but also Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We all worked incredibly closely together to get a system that was fair and that was robust.

‘We had every confidence because of the extensive consultation and broad consultation that we’d sort of done in terms of the development of the system that what had been developed by Ofqual would be something that would stand scrutiny and would have the robustness that wasn’t the case in the Scottish system.’

He added: ‘One of the key differences also that we saw between the system that was developed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the systems that were developed across those three nations, was you didn’t have that same disparity between the marking down of grades between children from disadvantaged areas to those children from more advantaged areas.

‘So there was a greater deal of confidence that this was a much more robust system that would deliver fair outcomes for students.’

Shadow education secretary Kate Green has written to Mr Williamson with 15 questions, including asking when students will receive their new grades and whether there will still be a free appeals process.

She welcomed the Government having ‘finally reversed its position’ after mounting calls from students, teachers and Conservative MPs.

‘However, the confusion of the past few weeks, and delay in making these important decisions, mean there are now important outstanding issues on which students, parents and institutions need urgent clarity,’ she added.

Whether students who have accepted an offer based on their moderated grades can switch institutions and how universities will be supported by the move to scrap the temporary limit on places were among her queries.

She also called for Mr Williamson to confirm no universities will be ‘allowed to fail financially’ as a result of the changes and for the Cabinet minister to set out the position for BTEC students’ grades.

In a statement, the Labour MP added: ‘This was a welcome and necessary change in policy, but we should never have been in this position as the government has had months to get this right.

‘The delay and chaos accompanying means that students, families, and education providers have no answers to essential questions.’

Mr Williamson on Monday apologised for ‘the distress’ caused to students and their parents and said it became clear over the weekend that action was needed after Ofqual released additional data about its algorithm.

There were widespread concerns the move to base results partly on schools’ past performances would have a greater negative impact on bright pupils and disadvantaged schools.

A timeline of exam failure 

March 18: Schools are closed and exams cancelled as the UK grinds to a halt under the coronavirus lockdown

March 20: Ministers say Ofqual and exam boards will work out a system for judging grades amid fears from parents that their children could lose out.

July 11: MPs on the Education Committee warn that the calculated grades system could unfairly punish disadvantaged and minority students because of the way it is calculated.

August 4: Scottish Higher results are released, with around 100,000 grades – a quarter of the total – marked down under a plan put in place by Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP administration

August 11: The Scottish Education Minister John Swinney U-turns under pressure from Tories and Labour and says predicted grades will be used instead of the algorithm.

August 11: Ministers in England decide that pupils will be able to appeal against their grades, in some cases using mock exam performance, just two days before the English results are released.

August 13: Almost 40 per cent of A-Level results in England are downgraded by Ofqual’s algorithm, sparking widespread fury and demands for a U-turn.

August 15: Ministers say that it will fund appeals against the marks handed out, in a bid to quell to anger.

August 15: Ofqual withdrawals its appeal criteria just hours after publishing it, pending a review.

August 17: Mr Williamson announces that A-Levels and GCSEs due to be unveiled on Thursday will be calculated using predicted grades, amid calls for his resignation.

What grades can now be used and will I still get into my first choice university? Answers to your questions after A-level and GCSE U-turn chaos

by Mark Duell for MailOnline 

Students in England have been told their A-level grades will now be based on teachers’ assessments – if they were higher than the moderated grades they received.

GCSE students who are anxiously awaiting their results on Thursday can also opt for grades based on their teachers’ estimates rather than the controversial algorithm devised by exams regulator Ofqual.

The Government’s U-turn comes after Ofqual revealed that nearly two in five (39.1 per cent) A-level grades in England were reduced from teachers’ predictions.

Here is a breakdown of what the decision means for students: 

What was the original plan?

After exams were cancelled, Ofqual, the exam regulator, asked teachers to submit grades for students and list them in order of ability. However, it was apparent that many had been overly optimistic. It was decided that more reliance would need to be placed on statistical modelling – or ‘standardisation’. This led to the algorithm which was used to calculate grades.

Why was this controversial?

A huge proportion of teachers’ predictions were deemed useless. A school’s performance in previous years played a greater role – reducing 40 per cent of A-levels, and an even higher proportion of GCSEs. The system penalised students at low-performing schools in poor areas. Its aim was only to preserve existing trends – including educational inequality.

A group of students at Norwich School react as they receive their A-Level results last Thursday

A group of students at Norwich School react as they receive their A-Level results last Thursday

What has now changed?

Before yesterday’s U-turn, Ofqual loosened its strict criteria on appeals, saying schools could challenge results.

But the onus on schools to submit evidence that their grades were wrong meant the row deepened. The Scottish government was first to U-turn, promising to restore the original teacher predictions. 

Westminster came up with a ‘triple lock’ guarantee, meaning pupils could fall back on mock exam grades or take fresh papers in October. But after a weekend of confusion, it announced England would also allow teachers’ grades. 

How will they get new grades?

Guidance is yet to be issued by the Department for Education, but it is assumed that boards will send out new exam certificates in the coming days for A-level students. The Government has said GCSE results will not be delayed, so they should also reflect teachers’ grades. 

Which grades can now be used?

A-level and GCSE students in England will now be able to use their centre assessment grades (CAGs) – the grades submitted by schools and colleges to the exam boards – if they are higher than the moderated grade.

Teachers were told to submit the grades they thought each student would most likely have received if they had sat the papers, after this summer’s exams were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Exam boards moderated these grades to ensure this year’s results were not significantly higher than previous years using an algorithm created by England’s exams regulator.

Students can keep their calculated grade from exam boards, but if their schools’ original estimated grade was higher then they can also use that result.

Students receive their A-level results at City Academy Hackney in East London last Thursday

Students receive their A-level results at City Academy Hackney in East London last Thursday

What were the issues with moderated grades?

Critics complained that Ofqual’s algorithm – which was used by exam boards to make the adjustments – had penalised pupils in schools in more disadvantaged areas, while benefiting those in private schools.

Head teachers reported that schools and colleges with larger cohorts saw more of their students’ grades downgraded, while those with smaller cohorts did not appear to be as affected.

Politicians and education unions called on ministers to scrap the unfair model and revert to teachers’ estimated grades to ensure students could progress into higher education and employment.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has admitted that the algorithm produced more ‘significant inconsistencies’ than could be rectified through an appeals process.

Can appeals still be made on the basis of mock exams?

Last week, Mr Williamson gave a ‘triple lock’ pledge that students could use the highest result out of their calculated grade from exam boards, their mock exam or sitting the actual exam in the autumn.

But following the decision to allow teachers’ grades to be used instead, the Education Secretary has said mock exam results will not be a key part of the appeals process for A-level and GCSE students in England.

Students who are unhappy with both their calculated grade and centre assessment grade will still be able to sit exams in the autumn.

Further details and guidance on how appeals can be processed have still not been published.

The Ucas deadline for applicants to meet their offer conditions is September 7, leaving exam boards only a matter of weeks to issue outcomes of appeals.

Students wearing face masks take part in a protest in London over A-level results on Saturday

Students wearing face masks take part in a protest in London over A-level results on Saturday

Will universities be able to admit students who now have the grades?

The Government has said it will remove temporary student number controls – introduced this year to stop over-recruitment due to Covid-19 – to remove potential barriers to students being able to progress.

Ministers have called on universities to be as flexible as possible when looking at who to admit on to a degree course, adding that they expect institutions to honour all offers made and met.

But some institutions have already raised concerns about a lack of capacity, staffing, accommodation and facilities if numbers increase – especially at a time when universities are trying to be Covid-secure.

Students who have now secured their first choice following the Government’s announcement may be asked to defer their place by a year if there is no space left on their preferred course.

The Government said students who have accepted an offer will be able to release themselves if they have another offer reinstated.

What will happen with BTEC students’ grades?

Students have called for urgent clarity on how BTEC students will be affected by the announcement.

Mr Williamson said the Department for Education (DfE) is working with BTEC awarding body Pearson and he is hopeful that the change will be extended to the vocational qualifications.

What is happening in the other devolved nations?

Last week, the Scottish Government was forced into a U-turn after a backlash about the moderation system used there. Students complained after more than 124,000 test results were brought down.

It was announced that the lower results would revert to the grades estimated by pupils’ teachers.

Less than a week later – just four days after A-level results were awarded in England, Northern Ireland and Wales – the devolved administrations also announced they were moving to teacher-assessed grades.

Most A-level and GCSE students will be given grades predicted by teachers in Northern Ireland following an outcry from teachers, parents and pupils.

Like elsewhere in the UK, Welsh pupils will now be awarded results on the basis of teacher assessments rather than an algorithm for grading A-levels and GCSEs.

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