GCSEs: DfE grades fiasco secrecy ‘simply unacceptable’

Wait of 16 weeks and counting for disclosure of emails on summer’s controversial A-level and GCSE results is condemned by headteachers
15th December 2020, 6:45am
Catherine Lough and John Roberts

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GCSEs: DfE grades fiasco secrecy ‘simply unacceptable’

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/gcses-dfe-grades-fiasco-secrecy-simply-unacceptable
Secrecy Dfe

The Department for Education has been criticised for "unacceptable" secrecy over its discussions surrounding this summer's exams grading process. 

In August, Tes put in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the DfE asking for its communications with Ofqual in the run-up to, and on, A-level results day.

Now, nearly four months later - and long after the statutory 20 working days deadline expired - the DfE has yet to disclose the information or even say what decision it has reached.

Geoff Barton, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said: "It is simply unacceptable to spend the best part of four months failing to supply information in response to a fairly straightforward request on a crucial matter of public interest.


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"Frankly, the Department for Education...should have proactively made this information available themselves in the interests of full transparency without the need for a FOI request. Schools, colleges, staff, students and the wider public all deserve full disclosure of the events surrounding this summer's grading fiasco."

No 'respectable excuse'

The Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) is also critical, saying that the DfE has not complied with the legal time limit and that there is no "respectable excuse" for the delay.

It points out that the DfE's initial reason - to consider the public interest - should normally not require more than another 20 working days.

"They've obviously gone beyond that," said CFOI director Maurice Frankel. "The pandemic doesn't provide a respectable excuse for the delay that has occurred and they're in breach of their requirements to comply with the time limit."

Both the DfE and Ofqual have previously been criticised for a lack of openness and transparency over grading decisions in the summer of 2020. 

In September, the Commons' education select committee requested all meeting minutes and correspondence held between the DfE and the regulator about the summer exams.

But on November 13, education secretary Gavin Williamson wrote to committee chair Robert Halfon offering an "account" of minutes and "summaries" of two papers requested but called for these to be kept secret from the public.

The committee has told Mr Williamson it does not regard this as an "acceptable solution".

Ofqual finally releases emails after Tes challenge

Ofqual also received an FOI request from Tes in August for communications with the DfE around the time of A-level results day. The regulator supplied nothing until Tes asked for an an internal review on Friday. 

A series of redacted emails between the government departments were then sent to Tes yesterday. 

They reveal how ministers had "significant concerns" about explaining the boost that independent schools' grades got to their original A-level grades this summer.

They also show that Ofqual did not the "capacity" to analyse impact of its grading algorithm on schools.

But Ofqual decided not to include some of its email exchanges with the DfE on the exam results.

It told Tes that releasing the information "could have a chilling effect" on communication between the two departments "by inhibiting free and frank discussions on potential options, thereby damaging future decision making and processes".  

Mary Bousted, National Education Union joint general secretary, said she could "well imagine" why Ofqual and the DfE wanted to keep the information secret but said it was difficult to argue that releasing it was "not in the public interest".

"Ofqual and the department's handling of exams, their defence of the algorithm, their desperate search for an alternative and then the decision to scrap the algorithm is of intense public interest to students, parents and education professionals who were affected by this," she said.  

"We have called for a public enquiry into this matter. Now it is obviously clear the government has no intention of holding an inquiry and, if it is taking them three months to decide whether releasing something is in the public interest, when it clearly is, then I am afraid it's not looking likely that they will publish this information."

 

Timeline: Tes FOI request to the DfE

 

24 AugustTes sends the department a request under the Freedom of Information Act, asking that it provide "all written communication between the Department for Education and Ofqual, between August 11 and August 13 inclusive, regarding the grading model and/or algorithm developed by Ofqual for this year's GCSE and A-level results" and receives a confirmation email of receipt that day.

 

22 SeptemberTes receives a letter of update from the DfE, stating that while the DfE holds the relevant information, exemption "Section 35(1)(a): Formulation of government policy" applies to the request, which aims to protect government policymaking processes.

"The Act obliges the department to respond to requests promptly and, in any case, no later than 20 working days after receiving your request," the letter says.

"However, where the exemption mentioned above is applicable, the department must consider whether the public interest lies in disclosing or withholding the information. In these circumstances, the Act allows the time for response to be longer than 20 working days."

The DfE tells Tes that it will take an additional 20 days to "make a decision on where the balance of the public interest lies" but that it is anticipated there will be a full response by 20 October. 

"If it appears that it will take longer than this to reach a conclusion, we will keep you informed," it adds.
 
 

20 OctoberTes receives a further update letter stating that "a further delay will indeed be necessary".

"Given the large amount of information and complexity of some of that information in respect of which exemptions are, or appear likely to be, engaged, we estimate that it will take an additional 20 working days to reach a decision on where the balance of the public interest lies, and to provide you with a full reply," the letter states. 

It adds that it hopes to provide a response by 17 November 2020.

 

17 November: The DfE writes to Tes citing the "large amount of information and complexity of some of that information" again and that it "will take an additional 20 working days to reach a decision on where the balance of the public interest lies, and to provide you with a full reply".

It says it is now hoped a response will arrive by 15 December.

"I do hope that you will understand that this delay is simply due to the fact that the department is trying to fulfil your request in a conscientious and thorough manner," the letter says.

"If it appears that it will take longer than this to reach a conclusion, we will keep you informed, and if it is possible to provide you with a substantive response sooner, we shall of course do so."

 

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