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Justine Greening says exams fiasco could be Boris Johnson’s Black Wednesday

Ms Greening warned Gavin Williamson that ‘actions speak louder than words’ in the wake of the exams crisis. (PA)

3 min read

This year’s crisis over exam results could be as damaging for Boris Johnson as Black Wednesday was for John Major’s government, a Conservative former education secretary has warned.

Justine Greening said the botched handling of A-level results risked undermining public trust in the Prime Minister’s “ability to level up Britain”, as she drew parallels with the 1990s economic debacle.

Boris Johnson on Monday apologised to English school children for the "distress" caused by his government's handling of the exam system, which initially saw pupils' A-level and GCSE marks downgraded before ministers were forced to U-turn on the policy.

Mr Johnson has stood by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson amid calls for him to resign over the affair, which comes as the Department for Education leads a push to get children back in the classroom after months of coronavirus-related closures.

Writing in The Guardian, Ms Greening, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2018, suggested her successor-but-one in the job should have been aware of the potential for problems months ago.

“It was clear when life-defining exams were cancelled that there would also be a need for a plan to ensure university places, apprenticeships and wider employment opportunities wouldn’t become even further out of reach for young people,” she said.

“Gavin Williamson was right to say sorry to young people for the school exam disruption they’ve had to suffer, but ultimately actions speak louder than words.”

And the former Putney MP warned: “The exams crisis in England and Wales this summer threatens to be as damaging for the public’s confidence in the ability of Boris Johnson’s government to tackle regional inequalities and level up Britain as the crisis over the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) was for John Major’s reputation on economic management. 

“How it responds now is pivotal for the country’s future, but also the current administration’s.

The ERM crisis was capped by a day known as ‘Black Wednesday’, which saw Mr Major’s Tory government forced to announce Britain’s withdrawal from the Europe-wide monetary policy just two years after joining.

In a bid to regain public confidence, Ms Greening urged the Government to take a “smarter approach” to next year’s pupil assessments, warning that exam results can “lead to an overly narrow, traditional measure or proxy of a young person’s potential that can be gamed by the extra investment in outcomes for children in private education”.

She also called on ministers to press ahead with a planned autumn Budget in a bid to provide “high-skilled jobs for these diverse, talented young people as they graduate in the coming years” amid a major economic downturn.

“If ministers should have learnt one thing from the exams chaos this August, it is that you don’t fix problems by pretending they don’t exist, it only lets them get worse,” she said.

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