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Gavin Williamson ‘was warned of A-level problems in July’

A former senior DfE official is said to have told the Cabinet minister that the model applied to A-level and GCSE grades would only be 75% accurate.

4 min read

Gavin Williamson was warned six weeks ago that the A-level and GCSE grading system used in the absence of this year’s exams could lead to thousands of students being given the wrong results, it has been reported.

A senior source at the Department for Education told The Times that Sir Jon Coles, a former director-general for standards, wrote to the Education Secretary to express his concerns over an algorithm used to determine results.

He is said to have told the Cabinet minister that the model applied to A-level and GCSE grades would only be 75% accurate, meaning hundreds of thousands of students were in line to receive the wrong grades.

In the event, Ofqual’s own analysis acknowledged the model had predictive accuracy of around 60%.

According to The Times, Mr Williamson held a video conference call with Sir Jon in mid-July to discuss the issue, but proceeded with the system amid fears that alternatives could lead to grade inflation and a delay in results being released.

MPs on the the Education Select Committee in early July meanwhile warned the Department for Education: “Given the potential risks of bias in calculated grades, it is clear that standardisation will be a crucial part of ensuring fairness.”

They said: “We are extremely concerned that Ofqual’s standardisation model does not appear to include any mechanism to identify whether groups such as BAME pupils, FSM [free school meal] eligible pupils, children looked after, and pupils with SEND [special educational needs] have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades.”

Confirming that Sir Jon had raised the issue with the the Department for Education, Schools Minister Nick Gibb told the Today programme on Thursday: “He spoke to me about it, and he was concerned about the model, and he was concerned that it would disadvantage particularly children from poorer backgrounds.”

But he said: “I called a meeting... with [exams regulator] Ofqual quote to discuss in detail those very concerns.

“And it, and it is clear that the model would not disproportionately disadvantage young people, and we did see that in the grades last week.”

He added: “The model itself was fair, it was very popular, its was widely consulted upon. 

“The problem arose in the way in which the three phases of the applications of that model: the historic data of the school, the prior attainment of the cohort of pupils at the school, and then the national standard correction — it’s  that element of the application of the model that I think there is a concern [about].”


But Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said: “Gavin Williamson was warned again and again about the problems with the grading algorithm, and each time, he did nothing.

“This endless pattern of incompetence is no way to run a country. His failure to listen to warnings and to act on them risked thousands of young people being robbed of their futures."

And she added: “It is time for full transparency. The Department for Education must now publish all correspondence to and from the Secretary of State in which concerns about this algorithm were discussed, as a matter of urgency.

“Young people deserve to know how they came to be let down so badly."

The row comes after the Department for Education issued a statement giving its full backing to exams regulator Ofqual over the A-level and GCSE grading controversy after Mr Williamson repeatedly refused to do so.

On Tuesday the Cabinet minister refused to personally express “confidence” in Sally Collier, the head of Ofqual, saying only that that she had worked hard in her position.

He said Ofqual “didn’t deliver the system that we had been reassured... would be in place” after the algorithm used to deliver moderated grades to pupils had to be scrapped in a humiliating U-turn.

But he was accused of “scapegoating” officials after it was reported Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, could face the sack.

In response, the Department for Education published a statement on Wednesday saying: "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.

"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.”

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