Boris Johnson blames exams chaos on ‘mutant algorithm’

Prime minister addresses children to assure them it is safe to go back to school

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 26 August 2020 13:03 BST
Boris Johnson blames exams chaos on 'mutant algorithm'

Boris Johnson has been accused of “shamefully” trying to dodge blame for this summer’s exam chaos after he told schoolchildren that a “mutant algorithm” was to blame.

In an address to pupils at a Leicestershire secondary, broadcast live on social media, the prime minister acknowledged that the botched announcement of this year’s A-level results had been “stressful” for thousands of teenagers initially awarded grades well below teachers’ predications, but insisted the problem had now been “sorted out”.

But Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green insisted that responsibility for the fiasco lay with “this Tory government’s incompetence”.

And Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said it was “brazen of the prime minister to idly shrug away a disaster that his own government created”.

Ms Green said: “Boris Johnson is shamelessly trying to avoid taking responsibility for the exams fiasco that his government created.

“Responsibility for this shambles lies squarely with Downing Street and the Department for Education, who set out how they wanted the algorithm to work and were warned weeks in advance of issues, but repeatedly refused to address the problems they had created.

“It is this Tory government’s incompetence that is to blame for the exams fiasco.”

Mr Johnson’s comments came just a day after Sally Collier resigned as chief of exams regulator Ofqual for her part in the fiasco, and hours before it was announced that Jonathan Slater was stepping down as top civil servant at the Department for Education.

The PM told students he recognised they had missed out on a lot during 159 days of lockdown, adding: “You couldn’t sit your exams, which you yearn to do.

“And I’m afraid your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm. And I know how how stressful that must have been for pupils up and down the country, and I’m very, very glad that it’s finally been sorted out.”

The prime minister’s six-minute address to a group of Year 11 students in the library of Castle Rock High School in Coalville was designed to reassure young people and their parents on the safety of schools, a day after his dramatic U-turn on the use of face coverings.

Mr Johnson made no mention of the last-minute climbdown on requiring masks in certain situations at school. But he could not resist taking a swipe at the BBC over the Last Night at the Proms row, telling the 15 and 16 year-olds that their teachers would be able to provide them with answers to questions like: “Is it politically appropriate to sing Rule Britannia? Yes.”

The PM thanked the children – who were socially distanced around large tables but not wearing masks – for their part in bringing coronavirus “under control”.

Schoolchildren and others whose lives have been disrupted since the start of lockdown in March deserve credit for the fact that numbers of deaths and hospital admissions from coronavirus are “way down” and “tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands” of lives have been saved, he said.

“I just wanted to say thank you … to all of you for your patience and your efforts, because it has been worth it,” said the prime minister.

“And, of course, we’ve always got to be vigilant we’ve got to follow the guidance about beating Covid – number one, wash your hands. But it’s thanks to you that we have the disease under control.”

Sporting a Castle Rock school tie, Mr Johnson told the pupils – on their first day back after their school reopened its doors at the end of the summer break – that they were at greater risk if they stay away from classes.

“The risk to your health is not from Covid – because after all statistically speaking, your chances of suffering from that disease are very, very low,” he said.

“The greatest risk you face now is of continuing to be out of school.

“And that’s not just because school is safe – though it is – or healthy – though of course it is.

“It’s not just because you have your friends and activities and sport here at school. It’s because from now on, getting back into school, in the hours and days and weeks of this new term, you will experience things with an intensity and clarity, believe me, that is seldom repeated in your lives.”

While recognising that children have been studying online during lockdown, he said that the learning experience which young people need “can only happen in school”.

“That’s why education is the great equaliser, it’s the liberator it’s the transformer of society and it’s the single most important way in which we can unite and level up across this whole country, and deliver social justice,” he said.

“And that is why we must in the next week, in the succeeding days, we must have every pupil back in school in the way that you’ve come back to school.”

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