‘Worst-case scenario’: Government pushed forward with flawed A-level algorithm despite other options, exams chief says

Roger Taylor says it was a ‘fundamental mistake’ to think public would get behind system

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 03 September 2020 00:43 BST
Ofqual Chair describes process in run-up to exam cancellation

The government went ahead with the controversial exam results algorithm despite England’s exams regulator warning it was the “worst-case scenario”, Ofqual‘s chair has said.

Roger Taylor said England’s exam regulator “initially advised against the cancellation of exams” as the government was trying to work out what to do amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“At the outset, our initial advice to the secretary of state was that the best way to handle this was to try and hold exams in a socially distanced manner,” Mr Taylor told the Commons Commons Education Committee.

“Our second option was to delay exams, but the third option, if neither of these was acceptable, would be to have to try and look at some form of calculated grades.”

He told the committee on Wednesday: “We did also look at whether that might be a teacher certificate rather than attempting to replicate exam grades. That was our advice to ministers.

“It was the secretary of state who then took the decision, who announced, without further consultation with Ofqual, that exams were to be cancelled and a system of calculated grades were to be implicated.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said Ofqual’s evidence “raised serious questions” about the UK education secretary’s role in this year’s grading chaos.

Gavin Williamson has repeatedly tried to blame Ofqual and officials for the crisis over exams,” she said. ”It is now clear he was responsible.”

Geoff Barton, from the Association of School and College Leaders, said Ofqual’s evidence to the committee on Wednesday suggested “the government knew the risks all along”.

He said: “We look forward to the government’s response, and how this squares with the prime minister’s recent statement that a ‘mutant algorithm’ was to blame for the grading fiasco.”

Under the original grading system set up for this year, teachers submitted grades they estimated students would have achieved in exams for standardisation.

Student protests followed A-level results day, which saw nearly 40 per cent of marks downgraded in the controversial moderation process.

In a U-turn days after A-level results came out, the government announced A-level and GCSE pupils could use their teacher-estimated marks — Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) – if higher than moderated marks.

Speaking to the education committee about the initial grading system, Mr Taylor from Ofqual said: “The fundamental mistake was to believe this would ever be acceptable to the public.”

Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, challenged Boris Johnson over the exams chaos at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, saying: “He either knew of the problem with the algorithm and did nothing or he didn’t know when he should have.

“So let me ask again: when did the prime minister first know there’d be a problem with the algorithm?”

Mr Johnson replied: “Ofqual made it absolutely clear time and again that in their view the system that was in place was robust. Ofqual is an independent organisation and credit had to be given to their views.”

Ofqual’s chair also told the education committee on Wednesday the regulator had advised against another government U-turn which allowed mock exam results to be used as a basis for appeal.

Mr Williamson has apologised to the “distress” downgraded results caused to students, and said again on Tuesday he is “deeply sorry” to school pupils who had their grades unfairly lowered across England.

Ofqual’s Mr Taylor has also apologised to students over this year’s grading.

“As we’ve consistently said, the government never wanted to cancel exams because they are the best and fairest form of assessment," a Department for Education spokesperson said.

“We listened to views from a range of parties, including Ofqual, and given the public health requirements at the time, made what was a very difficult decision on the basis that it was a necessary step to fight the spread of coronavirus."

Additional reporting by Press Association

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