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Friday, September 25, 2020

Gavin Williamson refuses to say Ofqual is ‘fit for purpose’ after exams fiasco

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Gavin Williamson refused to back exam regulator Ofqual today as he admitted he would like ministers to have ‘a greater degree of oversight’ in the wake of the A-Level and GCSE exam fiasco.

The Education Secretary, who has been accused of trying to shift blame for the grades crisis to the grades watchdog, declined several opportunities to say it was ‘fit for purpose’ as he was grilled by MPs.

He faced the Education Committee over the August debacle that saw grades pulled at the last minute after a controversial computer algorithm that was used was accused of downgrading high-achieving students from poorer areas.

Tory committee chairman Robert Halfon said there were ‘blurred lines of accountability’ and asked several times if M Williamson believes the current body was working effectively.

The minister did not respond directly, saying: ‘Ofqual is obviously very clearly independent. It was set up to be that non-ministerial government department a decade ago and it has done an incredibly important job in terms of preserving and safeguarding standards.’

He added: ‘I think actually technically they are more answerable to you than they are to me. 

The Education Secretary, who has been accused of trying to shift blame for the grades crisis to the grades watchdog, declined several opportunities to say it was 'fit for purpose' as he was grilled by MPs

The Education Secretary, who has been accused of trying to shift blame for the grades crisis to the grades watchdog, declined several opportunities to say it was ‘fit for purpose’ as he was grilled by MPs

Tory committee chairman Robert Halfon said there were 'blurred lines of accountability' and asked several times if M Williamson believes the current body was working effectively

Tory committee chairman Robert Halfon said there were ‘blurred lines of accountability’ and asked several times if M Williamson believes the current body was working effectively

‘I can issue them a direction but it isn’t as direction that they have to follow, it is a direction that they should have regard to and that they are a proper independent standalone non-ministerial government department. 

‘But obviously as you would expect and would want it is right that we have an incredibly good, strong working relationship with them.’

When Tory committee member David Simmonds asked if ministers should have ‘a greater degree of oversight’ over the system now, Mr Williamson replied: 

‘I do agree with you on that.’

The chief executive of exam regulator Ofqual quit last month, days after a furious row over A-Level and GCSE grades in England.

Sally Collier resigned as chief regulator after four years in the role following criticism over the chaos that enveloped exam results for thousands of teenagers unable to sit tests because of coronavirus.

Mr Williamson attempted to pin blame on the regulator amid calls for his resignation after the system used to grade students was found to unfairly penalise pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

 Earlier this month Ofqual’s chairman claimed it was Mr Williamson who decided to use an algorithm to award grades to students despite the regulator urging the Education Secretary not to cancel exams. 

Roger Taylor told the Education Select Committee that earlier this year the regulator had made clear to the Education Secretary that it believed the best way forward was for exams to go ahead ‘in a socially distanced manner’. 

Ofqual’s second choice was to delay exams, while moving to some form of calculated grades was a distant third choice. 

Despite this advice, Mr Williamson apparently opted unilaterally to proceed with option three with Ofqual then tasked with developing the algorithm to award grades.

The algorithm caused 40 per cent of grades to be downgraded below teacher estimates, prompting widespread pupil and parent anger which ultimately resulted in the computer model being dropped. 

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