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Gavin Williamson urged to ‘get a grip’ after exams U-turn triggers scramble for university places

The Education Secretary has apologised to pupils for the “distress” caused by the past week. (PA)

5 min read

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has been told to “get a grip” as universities rushed to find places for pupils affected by the Government’s U-turn on grades.

Mr Williamson’s Labour opposite Kate Green has written to the Cabinet minister to warn that “students, families, and education providers have no answers to essential questions” in the wake of the shift.

And university groups said they were still seeking “urgent clarification and advice” from the Government over a host of issues.

On Monday the Government announced that a controversial algorithm used to calculate this summer’s A-Level and GCSE grades would be ditched and replaced by teacher assessments amid a major backlash.

Mr Williamson apologised to pupils after being forced to abandon a system he had spent days defending, amid mounting pressure from students, senior Conservatives and opposition parties.

"I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve," he said.

In a statement on Monday afternoon the exam regulator Ofqual said “after reflection” it has decided the best way forward is “to award grades on the basis of what teachers submitted”.

But Ms Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, said the Government still needed to offer “urgent clarity” on the impact the change would have on higher education.


The Times reports that 55,000 pupils missed out on their first choice university places last week and may now have good enough grades to be accepted.

Meanwhile a further 80,000 who were planning to use the Government’s appeal system are also on the hunt for a higher education place.

Ms Green said: “This was a welcome and necessary change in policy, but we should never have been in this position as the government has had months to get this right."
She added: “It is time for this government to get a grip and provide the clarity that we need to move forward.” 

In her letter to Mr Williamson, the Labour frontbencher acknowledges the Government’s decision on Monday night to lift the usual cap limiting higher education places.

But she asks the Education Secretary whether the change represents a “wholesale” lifting of the cap that will allow students who missed out on places to take them up.

And the Shadow Education Secretary asks what capacity exists in the university system to allow institutions “to accommodate higher numbers of students enrolling on courses”; whether students who have already accepted an offer at their second choice are able to change; whether universities will get extra financial help; and what steps the Department for Education is taking to ensure disadvantaged students “are not missing out as a result of the events of the past few weeks”.

Ms Green also demands to know whether BTECs and other vocational qualifications are included in the change.

According to FE Week, Mr Williamson on Monday night briefed education reporters that he was "very much hoping that this will be actually encompassing BTECs".

In a statement issued on Monday night, the Department for Education said: "The Government recognises the move to centre assessment grades will have implications for universities and students, and therefore intends to remove student number controls.

"The move will help to prioritise students’ interests and ensure that there are no barriers to students being able to progress."

They added: "The Government is working closely with the sector to create additional capacity and ensure they are as flexible as possible, and are setting a clear expectation that they honour all offers made and met.

"The Universities Minister Michelle Donelan will lead a new taskforce, working with sector groups, to ensure students can progress to the next stage of their education.

"Students who previously missed their offer and will now meet it on the basis of their centre assessment grade should get in contact with the university.

"Those who have accepted an offer will be able to release themselves if they have another offer reinstated."


Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents higher education institutions, said the shift in stance from the Government "will mean that more students will have the grades that match the offer of their first choice university".

But he warned: “This will cause challenges at this late stage in the admissions process - capacity, staffing, placements and facilities - particularly with the social distance measures in place.”

"Universities will do everything they can to work through these issues in the days ahead. 

“The Government will need to step up and support universities through the challenges created by this late policy change. We are seeking urgent clarification and advice from Government on a number of crucial issues.

"Almost 70% of students are already placed with their first-choice institution, but those who are not should think carefully about their next steps, speak to their parents, guardians and teachers and get into contact with their preferred university to advise on their options."

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said the Government’s U-turn on results “may already be too late for some A-level students who have already missed out on their first choice of university and course”.

He added: “Every day of delay is going to have loaded more and more difficulty onto universities and their capacity to meet all of the demand for places that will now inevitably come their way.

"For them, the problem is far from over.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the row had caused “unimaginable grief, anxiety and hurt” to families across the country.

Writing in the Mirror, he said: “The Government should have spent the summer implementing a plan to get children back at school next month. 

“Instead, we have had to waste days on this fiasco.”

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