Government 'preparing fallback measures’ in case coronavirus disrupts 2021 exam season, says Gavin Williamson

Education secretary insists resignation of exams regulator was 'personal decision'

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 26 August 2020 09:31
Boris Johnson admits govenrment could have done things differently on A-levels

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has raised the prospect of disruption to next year’s school exams due to Covid-19, saying the government was preparing “fallback measures” to determine results in the case students are unable to sit papers in the normal way.

Mr Williamson said the measures would be “different and better” than the controversial algorithm used by Ofqual to grade pupils in England this summer, which forced a government U-turn amid fury from students, parents and schools at the widespread downgrading of children from less advantaged backgrounds.

Speaking a day after the resignation of Ofqual chief Sally Collier over the grading chaos and a day after Boris Johnson admitted that the government "might have done some things differently" on exams, Mr Williamson insisted that ministers had sought and received assurances from the regulator that its system would not produce the same unfairness seen weeks earlier in Scottish results.

He insisted that Ms Collier’s resignation as chief regulator was a “personal decision” agreed with the Ofqual board.

But he dodged questions about his own position, saying only that “I love the job I have - one of the very, very best jobs in government”.

Asked whether he took responsibility for the exam grading fiasco, the failure to reopen schools to all pupils as planned in June and Tuesday’s U-turn over the use of face-masks, he told BBC Breakfast: “Everyone takes responsibility for what they do and how they approach things.”

But he again pointed the finger of blame at Ofqual for the performance of its algorithm, which operated more favourably for pupils at private schools than those in state comprehensives.

Ministers had always insisted that fairness must be “at the heart” of any system for moderated grades in the absence of exams, he told Radio 4’s Today programme.

And he added: “We did ask the question about how their model would affect poorer children.

“One of the issues and challenges in Scotland is we saw a real difference between the downgrading of grades from children from the most deprived communities, compared to those children from the least deprived communities. We asked was this something that would be happening within the system within England, and were given the assurance - and the evidence pointed (to this) - that there wasn't that disparity that you had seen in Scotland.”

Asked whether he had demanded Ms Collier’s departure, he replied: “This was a decision that Sally made - an incredibly dedicated and committed public servant - in discussions with the Ofqual board which, as you are aware, is a non ministerial government department. And that was a decision between them.”

Mr Williamson said his Department for Education was focused on ensuring that planned exam series this autumn and in the summer of 2021 go ahead successfully.

But he warned that “no-one can truly predict a global pandemic” and made clear that preparations were also being made for possible disruption to future A-levels and GCSEs.

“What we're doing is we're taking the steps to ensure that, firstly, there is that full summer and full autumn exam series,” he said.

“But we're also going to be looking at other measures to give assurances if there's ever a situation where, if there is a global pandemic that would be in a place where it interrupts the ability to run a full exam series, there's better and different fallback measures that we have available to us in order to be able to deliver assessments and grades for all young people, whatever their background.”

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