The Daily Telegraph
Williamson and Ofqual divided over exam grades
Watchdog board split over algorithm which members fear has led to loss of public trust
THE Education Secretary last night faced being undermined as it emerged key figures at the exam regulator want the Government to about-turn and award students their predicted grades.
The Daily Telegraph can disclose that board members of Ofqual – the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation – want to ditch their own algorithm, controversially used to calculate A-level and GCSE results this year.
Gavin Williamson has repeatedly defended the algorithm as the fairest way to award student grades after exams were cancelled in lockdown, and said there will be “no U-turn, no change”.
He has insisted using teachers’ predictions – “centre assessed grades” or CAGS – would lead to massive grade inflation and devalue the qualifications.
However, sources told this newspaper that a split emerged in Ofqual’s board at the weekend, whereby some members believed the algorithm had led to a “haemorrhaging” of public trust in qualifications and that performing an about-turn, as the Scottish government had done, was the “least bad option”.
The decision to do away with the algorithm and instead award teachers’ predictions lies with the Education Secretary, who would need to issue a directive to Ofqual. That senior figures at the regulator are now calling for the change will put Mr Williamson under pressure to act.
But even as the fiasco over A-level results is being unpicked, a similar row over GCSES looms, with results due for release on Thursday.
The latest development came after a weekend in which Ofqual issued guidance on how students could appeal against their grades – then pulled it hours later amid concern it was at odds with government policy.
Last night, the guidance remained unpublished, despite appeals being due to start today and pupils facing a race to secure places at university.
Universities are under pressure to honour offers to students made on the basis of predicted grades. The four Children’s Commissioners for the UK have published a joint letter calling for this, and in a letter to this newspaper, 15 former presidents of the Oxford University Students’ Union urged the elite institution to do the same.
A source familiar with the split within Ofqual said: “I don’t think it was understood how difficult it would be to secure public confidence in grades calculated by an algorithm rather than results of an actual exam.
“It has become clear that the only alternative to the attempt to standardise grades is to award CAGS, despite reservations that exist about consistency.”
They added that pressing ahead with plans to award GCSE results based on the algorithm would be “suicide”.
Lord Baker, who created GCSES in the Eighties, said results day this Thursday should be postponed.
“Their algorithm is flawed,” he said. “This will result in millions of aggrieved students and many more aggrieved parents and grandparents. If you are in a hole, stop digging.”
The Government was understood to be furious that Ofqual’s original advice appeared to undermine its promise of a “triple lock” on results. Ofqual stated in their guidance – withdrawn hours later – that mock exams were in fact a less accurate indicator of student attainment
Conservatism is supposed to be about individual achievement and meritocracy. Yet Ofqual has created an exam system that seemingly favours the collective. Its algorithm prioritises collective school records over that of the pupil’s personal efforts.
At a time when the agenda of the Government is all about levelling up, how is it possible that the Ofqual standardisation model appears to penalise further education colleges that have been steadily improving in recent years, while benefiting private school pupils?
We now know, according to education datalab, that private schools saw a rise in their proportion of A and A* grades that was more than double the increase for any state school.
An additional problem is that Ofqual initially designed a Kafkaesque appeal process designed only to work if you happen to be lucky enough to be the child of a Supreme Court judge.
We now need to do everything possible to remedy the situation.
First, and perhaps the most important thing, is that there needs to be a Ronseal appeals process – in that it is simple, understandable, fair and ensures that all pupils can climb back up the education ladder of opportunity. In short, it does what it says on the tin.
If every student could appeal, signed off by their head teacher, and there was a guaranteed fast turnaround, we could avoid some of the justified anger, anguish and upset from students who feel that they have been penalised. Secondly, the Government needs to make it crystal clear to universities that they must be flexible in terms of grading. Thirdly, there are a number of students who will opt to do exams in the autumn.
What on earth is going to happen to them? How are they going to be taught, what happens if there are local lockdowns? While the Department for Education has provided a welcome £30million to cover schools’ costs of hosting these exams, there needs to be a clear plan as to how these children will have a fair crack of the whip.
This year will be remembered not just because of corona but because of the disastrous time students have had. Education seems to have been an afterthought compared with the economy and the nation’s health.
Education is everything. It is the engine of social mobility. The Prime Minister needs to take charge, set out a long-term plan for education and ensure pupils have a fair exam system for all. It is absolutely right there is a regulator for exams: checks and balances in the system are necessary. However, unless the Government and Ofqual can sort out the appeal system so it can be done properly and fairly, there will be no option sadly but to adopt the Scottish position in allowing teachers’ predicted grades to stand. If they don’t get it right and we have a bigger problem with GCSES this week, I can’t see any other solution.
Robert Halfon MP is chairman of the education select committee