A-level results: Ofqual boss resigns in wake of exams chaos

Boris Johnson admits the government ‘might have done some things differently’ on school qualifications

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 25 August 2020 16:35
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Boris Johnson admits govenrment could have done things differently on A-levels

The head of England’s exams regulator Ofqual has resigned in the wake of this summer’s A-level and GCSE results fiasco, the organisation has announced.

Sally Collier’s departure came as prime minister Boris Johnson admitted that the government “might have done some things differently” on school qualifications in a year when coronavirus prevented the usual exams from taking place.

Education secretary, Gavin Williamson, also faced immediate calls for him to follow Ms Collier’s example and fall on his sword. Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Layla Moran, said Mr Williamson “is simply not the person to deliver a safe return to schools and must resign”.

School leaders’ union ASCL wrote to the education secretary calling on him to commission an immediate independent inquiry into what went wrong.

The Ofqual chief regulator had been due to face a grilling from MPs on the House of Commons Education Committee next Wednesday over the chaos surrounding exam results, which initially saw an algorithm downgrade nearly 40 per cent of A-level pupils’ predicted grades. Amid fury among parents and pupils, Mr Williamson was forced into a U-turn which resulted in a massive increase in passes and inflated results compared to previous years.

In a statement, Ofqual said that Ms Collier had decided that “the next stage of the awarding process would be better overseen by new leadership” and was stepping down after four years in post.

She is replaced on a temporary acting basis by her predecessor Dame Glenys Stacey until the appointment of a permanent chief regulator in December. Dame Glenys will be supported by a new committee of the Ofqual board, chaired by Ofsted chief executive Amanda Spielman.

A Downing Street spokesperson yesterday said that Mr Johnson was “sorry” for the distress felt by students who were initially given grades below the requirements for their chosen university courses, in many cases because Ofqual’s computers adjusted results in line with their schools’ performance in previous years in a way which favoured private schools.

Speaking during a visit to Devon on Tuesday, the prime minister said: “I mean you think about the people that have done their A-levels, their GCSEs this year, they’ve been in many ways a remarkable generation.

“They’ve had to stay at home, which has been difficult, it has posed risks, as I say, to their health, to their mental health, they’ve done a fantastic job, they’ve protected the NHS, they’ve helped to save lives, to get us through this pandemic and I’m just pleased that they now do have results that they can work with.

“And yes, you know if we had to do it again, we might have done some things differently, I’m certainly not going to deny that.

“But they’ve got a series of results that they can certainly work with and use to develop their careers.”

Ministers and regulators have been accused of ignoring the warnings of a Commons Education Committee report on 11 July, which highlighted the danger that Ofqual’s proposed system for awarding qualifications could be unfair on certain groups, including disadvantaged students.

Ofqual chair Roger Taylor will now face a grilling the committee on 2 September without Ms Collier. Mr Williamson will also be held to account for his part in the affair when he gives evidence to the committee on 16 September.

The education secretary was facing growing calls to step down. He has so far dodged questions over whether he offered Mr Johnson his resignation.

Ms Moran said: “It is incredibly disappointing that Gavin Williamson has refused to take responsibility for the combination of initial school return failure and the more recent exam fiasco and has instead allowed to let someone else take the blame.

“He has lost the trust of students, parents and teachers who he failed to consult, leaving universities and colleges in chaos.

“Meanwhile the prime minister is still yet to apologise for the stress and harm his government caused to students, parents and teachers.

“Gavin Williamson is simply not the person the deliver a safe return to schools and must resign.”

Labour MP, Bill Esterson, said: “Sally Collier, head of Ofqual, has done the decent thing, accepted responsibility for the exam fiasco and resigned. How can it be right that Collier has resigned but education secretary, Gavin Williamson hasn’t?”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This move follows the failure of the statistical model that led to this year’s grading fiasco, but the fault is not hers alone.

“Ministers have questions to answer over the extent to which they scrutinised and challenged the methodology and reliability of the statistical model, particularly given the enormity of the task and the importance of getting it right.

“Schools and colleges put their trust in the government over this matter, dutifully followed the processes advised by Ofqual, and now feel badly let down by the ensuing debacle. They deserve some answers and so do their students.”

Bill Watkin, the chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said it was “not altogether surprising that Ms Collier had quit”, but said responsibility was shared with government.

He told the BBC: “This was all about protecting the system against grade inflation – too many high grades, which would seem to devalue the achievements of young people. But I have to say young people have had such a hard time of it in the last few months, I don’t think grade inflation was something that we needed to worry about quite as much as we did.”

Education committee chair, Robert Halfon, said he was surprised Ms Collier had quit just days after agreeing to appear before his cross-party inquiry, and said he hoped she would still attend to answer questions.

“I’ve tried to stay away from finger-wagging, because my policy is to find out what’s gone wrong and who was responsible for it, and why this sort of mega-mess was allowed to happen in the first place,” Mr Halfon told Times Radio. ”I’m not going to comment on individuals, but clearly she felt Ofqual had failed the parents, pupils and schools, and that’s why she went.”

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