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Wed, 30 September 2020

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Boris Johnson warned Tory MPs will go on the ‘warpath’ if A-levels row not resolved

Boris Johnson warned Tory MPs will go on the ‘warpath’ if A-levels row not resolved
6 min read

Boris Johnson has been warned that Conservative MPs will start “going on the warpath” if he does not resolve a crisis over this year’s A-level results.

The Government is being urged to “grip” the exams row after a chaotic weekend in which regulator Ofqual published and then withdrew its appeals process for challenging moderated grades handed out in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tory MPs, teachers’ unions and the former education secretary behind GCSE exams are all piling pressure on the Government to change course after hundreds of thousands of pupils saw their results downgraded despite a new “triple lock” system promised by the Department for Education.

Conservative MP Sir Robert Syms told The Times: “In December people voted for Boris Johnson to run the country, not an algorithm. 

“What’s happening was avoidable. We saw what happened in Scotland, they got themselves in a hole then got themselves out. We seem to have gone headfirst in and are still digging.”

He added: “There is real risk of Tory MPs going on the warpath. In the current situation we ought to err on the side of allowing grade inflation. 

“The government is defending Ofqual; I’m not sure it should be. It should be on the side of hard-working students and families.”

Former minister Stephen Hammond, who has written to the Department for Education to demand a rethink, told Sky News the situation had descended “very rapidly from some clarity into a shambles”.

He said: “I think what is clear now is that by the end of today that there needs to be an appeals process that is fair, resolves matters quickly and is simple and transparent to understand, so that we can help all those people who feel just distressed, frustrated by the grades they've been given.” 

North Dorset MP Simon Hoare said the situation was “beyond a joke” and “smacks of naive incompetence” as he called for the education select committee to be “ruthless” in scrutinising the row.

Conservative former education secretary Lord Baker of Dorking urged the Government: “If you are in a hole, stop digging.”

And he said: “I urge the Education Secretary to instruct Ofqual not to release the GCSE results this Thursday as their algorithm is flawed. 

“The A-level results have produced hundreds of thousands of unfair and barely explicable downgrades.”

Students who were not able to sit exams this year because of the coronavirus pandemic saw 280,000 A-level results downgraded compared to teachers’ predictions — almost 40% of all grades awarded.

'NEEDS TO GRIP THIS'

In a bid to stave off a backlash that had hit the Scottish Government, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Wednesday announced that all A-level grades in England would be protected by a so-called “triple lock”.

This guaranteed students could accept their calculated grade from regulator Ofqual, which determined results using a statistical model after exams were cancelled, appeal on the basis of a valid mock result, or resit their exams in the autumn. 

Ofqual then published guidance this weekend saying that for a mock assessment to be considered “valid” it had to have been taken in exam-style conditions prior to the closure of schools, constitute a closed paper not available to students prior to sitting, and marked using exam board marking schemes. 

But the new guidance was withdrawn just eight hours later for “review”, prompting fresh anger from politicians and education leaders.

Former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson told Times Radio: “The education secretary needs to get out on the television, he needs to be telling people what’s going on, he needs to be telling Ofqual what is going to happen. He needs to grip this.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned the Prime Minister that the exam results crisis could hit next month’s plan for a full return of all school pupils in England.

“Some colleges report that they need to deal with hundreds of individual appeals, all of which will be a major distraction for leaders and teachers,” he said.

“This pressure will mount further following GCSE results on Thursday, which are also likely to generate many appeals if teacher-assessed grades are once again moderated down. 

“Any appeals process must be simple, swift and free from bureaucracy so that the opening of schools and colleges remains the priority.”

'RECALIBRATE AND RERUN'

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), meanwhile urged Ofqual to "immediately recalibrate and rerun the model to provide all students with an accurate grade".

The SFCA has published new research which finds that that A-level grades awarded at sixth form colleges this year fell below the average of the last three years in England in every subject.

Mr Watkin told BBC Breakfast: “We looked at 41 A-level subjects which is almost all A-levels, and the extraordinary thing that we found was that in every single one of the 41 A0-level subjects, the performance in this year's results was below the three-year average — in every single subject.”

The SFCA is calling on Ofqual to adjust the model used for this year's A-level results or revert to using teachers' predicted grades for pupils, a move called for by Labour.

Speaking on Sunday night, Labour’s Shadow Treasury Minister Wes Streeting told the Westminster Hour: “It wouldn’t be perfect, but I think it would be an improvement on where we are now."

He added: "Effectively what the government have done, with this algorithm, with the pattern of results that we’ve seen, is that they’ve said to young people across the country, we’re judging you based on where you’re from, we’re judging you based on the school you attended, and basically we’re saying people like you can’t achieve."

Robert Coe, a member of Oqual's standards advisory committee, told the Today programme: “The whole thing seems, at the very least, a massive communications failure and a management failure."

Mr Williamson, the Education Secretary, has vowed not to revisit this year's A-level grades, warning that if teachers’ grades are used instead of the Ofqual model, “we would have seen them shoot up, which would devalue the results for the class of 2020 and would clearly not be fair on the classes of 2019 and 2021”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Hundreds of thousands of students have received a calculated grade that will enable them progress to the next stage of their education or into work.

“We have been clear that we want to build as much fairness into the appeals process as possible to help young people in the most difficult cases and have been working with Ofqual to achieve that. 

"Ofqual continues to consider how to best deliver the appeals process to give schools and pupils the clarity they need."

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