Government has ‘full confidence’ in exams regulator after A-level grades chaos

The National Education Union has called for significant changes to be made to the 2021 grading process to ensure students are not ‘failed’.

A-Level results
A-Level results

The Government has given its backing to England’s exams regulator Ofqual amid the A-level and GCSE grades controversy.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had suggested that Ofqual “didn’t deliver” the system that the Government had been “reassured” would be in place following the U-turn on grades.

During a series of interviews, the minister had not categorically confirmed whether he retained confidence in the watchdog.

On Wednesday, the Department of Education said it had “full confidence” in the regulator and its leadership following the controversy.

Later in the day, schools and colleges were told by exam board Pearson not to issue BTEC results to students on Thursday – less than 24 hours before grades were due to be given out.

Pearson wrote to schools and colleges asking them not to publish any results for the vocational qualifications so they could recalculate the final grades.

A spokeswoman for Pearson said: “Following Ofqual’s announcement that A-level and GCSE students are to receive centre-assessed grades, we will be applying the same principles for students receiving BTEC results this summer.

“We will be regrading BTECs to address concerns about unfairness in relation to A-levels and GCSEs and ensure no BTEC student is disadvantaged.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know this delay to BTEC results will be disappointing for students and understand their frustration.

“The awarding organisations have decided to take more time in order to make absolutely certain no student is inadvertently worse off due to changes in how grades are assessed.

“Critically, no student will see their result downgraded as a result of this review, so results already issued will either stay the same or improve.

“The relevant awarding organisations have assured us that students will receive their results as soon as possible.”

The Education Secretary faces continued intense pressure after he was forced to abandon the algorithm-based system for awarding A-level and GCSE grades in England in the middle of exam results season.

The Government’s U-turn on Monday came too late for many students who already made choices about universities based on the grades they were initially awarded, rather than the new system of using teachers’ assessments.

The Department for Education said: “As the Government has made clear, we have full confidence in Ofqual and its leadership in their role as independent regulator and we continue to work closely with Ofqual to deliver fair results for our young people at this unprecedented time.”

It added: “The decision they took to move from moderated grades to centre assessed grades was one that we agreed with.

“Our focus remains on working with Ofqual to ensure students receive their final GCSE, AS level and A-level results this week so that they can move on to the next stage of their lives.”

Speaking to LBC on Tuesday morning, Mr Williamson said: “We ended up in a situation where Ofqual didn’t deliver the system that we had been reassured and believed that would be in place.”

Asked if he had confidence in the regulator, he said: “It is quite clear that there have been some real challenges in terms of what Ofqual have been able to deliver.”

Students taking exams (David Jones/PA)
Students taking exams (David Jones/PA)

Meanwhile, shadow attorney general Lord Falconer of Thoroton said Ofqual’s controversial exam results algorithm was unlawful.

In a joint letter with shadow education secretary Kate Green to Mr Williamson and chief regulator of Ofqual Sally Collier, Labour peer Lord Falconer, who was attorney general under Tony Blair, argued that ministers and Ofqual would have been aware of at least three breaches of the law in the standardisation formula used.

The letter states: “The U-turn on A-Level and GCSE results announced this week is of course welcome, however it should never have come down to this, so late on when Ofqual and the Secretary of State have been fully in the knowledge that the standardisation formula that was being used was unlawful.”

Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents 296 leading private schools, called for a public inquiry into the “shambles” of the 2020 exams.

He said: “It is vital that lessons are learnt to avoid making the same mistakes next year.”

Elsewhere, the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union (NEU) have written to Mr Williamson to demand significant changes to exams in 2021 to ensure the process which “failed” A-level students never happens again.

Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney said the controversy around last week’s A-level results “must never happen again” and urged the minister to prepare for new spikes in coronavirus that could lead to “further loss of schooling”.

In the letter to Mr Williamson, they said: “It is clear to the National Education Union that Government needs to make much bigger changes to next year’s exams in order to build confidence that the grades awarded, upon which young people’s life chances are determined, properly recognise and reward their achievements.

“You should be working, now, to examine different possible scenarios and to develop contingency plans in case of further school and college closures.”

The NEU leaders said the Government should reduce the amount of content assessed in next year’s exams and should commission an independent review into the assessment methods for GCSEs and A-levels.

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