A U-turn by ministers over secondary school pupils’ results in England may well defuse a public outcry over iniquities in grading but education leaders warned it would create problems in the system for years to come.
After resisting calls for a rethink despite mounting public anger, education secretary Gavin Williamson finally caved in on Monday and apologised for the “distress” he had caused to students and their parents.
In the latest of a series of policy blunders by the government during the coronavirus pandemic, he accepted the process of awarding grades for A-levels and GCSEs partly based on a computing algorithm was seriously flawed. He announced England would follow the lead of Scotland and move to restore downgraded results to those based on teacher assessments.
The decision left universities scrambling to work out how to accommodate affected students.
The original approach began to unravel last Thursday when the A-level algorithm came under fire from students after 40 per cent of their grades were lowered from their teacher’s assessments and from statistical experts who complained of severe biases in the approach.
Stian Westlake, chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society, said that if Ofqual had accepted the advice that his organisation and others had offered, “it might have fixed some of the problems”. But he said the whole process was beset with mistakes, including technical errors, and lacked transparency.
One specific problem, which led to private schools benefiting from a sharp rise in top grades, was that the algorithm automatically excluded pupils in small classes, which are rare in state schools.
This particularly helped students taking less popular subjects such as Latin, German and computer science. It also led to anomalies such as Rye St Antony, a very small Catholic private school in Oxford, overturning its normally below-average performance with a stunning set of grades this year. “No pandemic was going to stand in the way of our girls’ career aspirations,” the headteacher, Joanne Croft, said in a press statement.
But the initial joy at schools such as these was not replicated in the state-run sixth-form colleges, which showed little improvement as almost all results were graded by the algorithm.
Georgina Porter, a hospital doctor whose daughter’s sixth-form college registered the worst results in its history this year, said she was shocked by the research that showed how much small independent schools had benefited from the system. “It was like a miracle had visited those schools in 2020,” Dr Porter said.
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Tom Haines, a lecturer in artificial intelligence at Bath University, said Ofqual had failed to carry out enough due diligence. “They didn’t get anyone to check their results,” he said.
The secondary school results fiasco is not the first time government has struggled with its education policy during the pandemic.
Most pupils in England have missed out on their education since mid-March after the government failed to get schools back before the summer holidays.
The decision to accept teacher assessments for A-level results will have serious knock-on effects for the rest of the education sector.
University leaders warned that the large number of A* and A grades awarded by teachers would create an oversupply of successful students relative to the number of places available. These top grades are up from 25.2 per cent last year to 37.7 per cent under teacher assessment.
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the elite Russell Group of universities, warned that taking on extra students would stretch resources and risked reducing the quality of education. The additional numbers would also cause problems for the social distancing measures required to try to manage the spread of the virus.
“We now need urgent clarification from government on the additional support it will provide to help universities with the expected increases in student numbers, particularly for high-cost subjects such as chemistry, medicine and engineering,” he said.
Some students would have to accept deferred places on courses such as medicine and dentistry or degrees with work placements, David Bell, the vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, warned.
“We will not rescind places that we have offered already. Some courses such as humanities will have flexibility, but where there is a capped course it’s unlikely we’d be allowed to break — or choose to break — the cap.”
Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said the move would have “challenging knock-on effects”, as students reviewed their next steps based on improved grades.
Many who had accepted places at their second-choice universities would now look to “trade up”, leading to a flurry of declined offers for some institutions. “It may be that the consequences for some universities is losing large numbers of students,” he said.
But Greg Walker, chief executive of Million Plus, which represents the post-1992 universities, was more optimistic and said the extra numbers could help offset the drop in foreign students due to coronavirus. “There was a fear of universities going insolvent, but if there is a 14 per cent uplift in grades it could be a year of expansion for universities.”
One school leader, however, said those to suffer most from the fiasco could be the pupils in Year 12 due to sit A-levels next year.
“There could be a stack of students who have deferred, who have these gloriously high A-level grades, and the poor 2021 [A-level] students who’ve missed a significant amount of their course are going to have to compete,” said Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council.
And some of those school leavers who had missed out on university places under the original system will still be disappointed, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, warned.
“Every day of delay is going to have loaded more and more difficulty on to universities and their capacity to meet all of the demand for places.”
Education secretary has PM’s ‘full confidence’
Downing Street on Monday threw its full support behind education secretary Gavin Williamson, despite rising anger among ministers and Conservative MPs at his handling of secondary school pupils’ results in England, write Sebastian Payne and Laura Hughes.
Mr Williamson’s abrupt U-turn to ditch A-level and GCSE results mainly based on use of a computing algorithm ranks as one of the most embarrassing failures by Boris Johnson’s government to date, with some ministers questioning whether the education secretary can retain his job.
“Gavin hasn’t exactly performed well, has he?” said one cabinet minister.
Several other Conservative MPs expressed their anger at both Mr Williamson and Downing Street’s handling of the school results row.
But Mr Johnson’s spokesperson said the prime minister continued to have “full confidence in Mr Williamson”.
Mr Williamson may survive the immediate furore primarily due to his loyalty to Mr Johnson.
In July last year, Mr Williamson garnered support among Conservative MPs for Mr Johnson’s successful bid to be Tory party leader.
His reward was the post of education secretary in a Johnson cabinet: a major comeback after he was sacked as defence secretary in May 2019 by the then prime minister Theresa May for allegedly leaking details from the National Security Council — something he strenuously denied.
One senior Conservative MP said after Mr Williamson’s U-turn on Monday: “Under normal circumstances, he would be toast. But Boris values loyalty above all else and Gavin has been one of the most loyal in the government.”
Another reason Mr Williamson could survive for now is Downing Street’s pugnacious attitude towards the media.
Mr Johnson’s inner circle is loath to lose government members following political storms in the media — as seen when Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, refused to resign in May after he flouted lockdown rules.
“The view in Number 10 is that they run the country, not the media,” said one Whitehall official.
But if Mr Williamson does make it through the next few days, few expect him to survive the next cabinet reshuffle.
“The debt from the leadership contest must surely be repaid by now,” said one of Mr Johnson’s allies.
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