Are we heading for another GCSE and A-level disaster?

Ofqual papers suggest a dysfunctional relationship with the education secretary. Catherine Lough fears their revelations may not bode well for 2021.

Catherine Lough

The GCSE and A-level fiasco: How much did education secretary Gavin Williamson know about Ofqual's concerns over its algorithm?

They may be dry and to the point, but there is plenty of drama contained within the revelatory set of Ofqual board papers released on Thursday.

They cover the period leading up to this summer's exam grading fiasco and give some insight into just how fraught things got. They also provide some very worrying signs for next summer.

Related: Ofqual knew GCSE and A-level results were 'unreliable'

Grading fiasco: How DfE bounced Ofqual into mocks plan

Watchdog: Ofqual board discussed Collier's exit in her absence

Ofqual's board meeting minutes show that it clearly had private misgivings over its grading algorithm, in stark contrast to the the public pronouncements of reassurance it made at the time.

On 9 August, Ofqual chair Roger Taylor described the algorithm as "the fairest possible way to recognise students’ achievements this year".

But minutes from Ofqual's board meeting held five days earlier on 4 August reveal that the regulator was "very concerned" about how some students, particularly "so-called outliers", would receive "unreliable" results from the grading model.

The GCSE and A-level results debacle: What did Gavin Williamson know?

The question is how much did education secretary Gavin Williamson know? On Monday 17 August, the day of the grading U-turn, he suggested that he had not known about details of the algorithm until after A-level results were published on Thursday 13 August.

“Over the weekend… Ofqual released some of the algorithm, and actually shared that quite broadly, and obviously we saw a number of outliers, that just didn’t actually make sense," he said on 17 August.

“Now, as you’ll know … actually we don’t get any of the detailed data before schools. When we started to see some of these quite concerning outliers – this is where we’re sort of asking questions."

But we now know, from the Ofqual board meeting minutes, that Mr Williamson had been in contact with the regulator on Tuesday 11 August, two days before A-level results day, to discuss falling confidence in calculated grades.

The minutes reveal that the Ofqual board had met that day "at short notice to consider options which had been raised earlier that morning by the [education secretary] to address declining public confidence in calculated grades and the events in Scotland".

Scottish grading U-turn

The "events in Scotland" were, of course, the U-turn north of the border that day that led to Scottish calculated Higher results being abandoned in favour of unmoderated teacher-assessed grades.

The minutes also reveal that an earlier meeting was set up between Mr Williamson and Ofqual on 9 July, where the regulator was due to "share a high-level preliminary overview of the summer 2020 results to date".

Some have suggested that knowledge of these meetings with Ofqual casts doubt over Mr Williamson's own suggestion that he did not know about the problems with the algorithm and the "outliers" in advance of the results being published. 

No smoking gun

But the Ofqual papers do not reveal anything definite in that respect. The minutes from the afternoon of 11 August do not mention whether Mr Williamson raised inconsistencies in the grading algorithm or outliers as a concern, or even whether he was told about them.

The same detail is lacking from 9 July. None of the minutes released record whether Mr Williamson was aware of these details prior to results.

In terms of what the education secretary definitely knew, they do not really move us on from the evening of 9 August. That was when Mr Williamson made his concerns about what could happen on results day quite public by announcing his last-minute plan to allow mock results to be used.

And those concerns could conceivably have been sparked by what had happened in Scotland that day, rather than any details about the situation in England.

But while there may be nothing resembling a smoking gun lurking in the minutes, they do raise some important questions.

Did Ofqual reveal concerns about 'unreliable' results?

Since we know that the Ofqual board was "very concerned" about "unreliable" results on 4 August, is it credible that this was not communicated to Mr Williamson during his discussions with Ofqual a week later? If the meeting was focused on the need for last-minute changes to the results, then why didn't Ofqual's concerns – which made the need even more pressing – come up that morning?

But if the concerns really weren't discussed then that suggests another, potentially much more significant, problem – a dysfunctional relationship between Ofqual and the Department for Education. If things were proceeding as they should then surely discussions over changes to something as important as the country's exam grades would involve all the issues being put on the table?

Or was Ofqual unwilling or uneasy about sharing some of the key issues with the algorithm with the government?

Ofqual under huge pressure

There is no doubt that the watchdog was under huge pressure from the DfE. A second set of Ofqual board minutes from 11 August, from a meeting held that evening, make that very clear. 

They reveal that Ofqual had misgivings about the DfE plan to use mocks for exam grading. But Mr Williamson spoke to Ofqual's then chief regulator Sally Collier in the middle of the meeting urging a quick decision.

The minutes then show that the DfE went ahead and publicly announced the mocks plan that evening anyway, before Ofqual's discussions had been concluded.

The worry now is, given the strained relationship between Ofqual and the DfE during 2020, how will the greater challenges of the 2021 summer exam season be resolved?

Next year's exam problems

The potential problems for next year only appear to be deepening. Yesterday leaders in the North of England warned the DfE that falling attendance rates mean that next year's exams should be scrapped in favour of teacher assessment, unless it wants to risk another "fiasco".

And last week Tes revealed how some senior figures in the exams sector feel that students in 2021 will need GCSE and A-level grades that are more generous than those in 2020, to ensure they are not penalised for all the learning time they have missed.

Ofqual now has new leadership. Nevertheless, the discussions that went on behind the scenes in the run-up to this year's debacle do not inspire much confidence for what is to come.

They show an education secretary who was either unclear of the details right up until it was too late, or did not act on them. And they imply the possibility of a relationship between Ofqual and the DfE too dysfunctional to allow important concerns to be communicated.

This does not suggest a system that can confidently grapple with the even more taxing issues of 2021.




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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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