Ofqual’s senior leadership told MPs that Ofqual should not be blamed for the fiasco that engulfed this summer’s exams in England, and accused the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, of causing the weekend of chaos that followed the publication of A-level results.
Roger Taylor, Ofqual’s chair, said Williamson directly called the regulator to tell it to scrap new guidelines on appeals just hours after they had been approved by the Department for Education (DfE), including Williamson’s office, and published.
Taylor also revealed that Ofqual told the government in March that awarding grades using a statistical model was “the worst-case scenario”.
“At the outset, our initial advice to the secretary of state was that the best way to handle this was to try to hold exams in a socially distanced manner, and that our second option was to delay exams. But the third option, if neither of these was acceptable, was to have to try and have some form of calculated grades,” Taylor said.
“It was the secretary of state who then subsequently took the decision and announced – without further consultation with Ofqual – that exams were to be cancelled and a system of calculated grades was to be implemented.”
The DfE responded: “As we’ve consistently said, the government never wanted to cancel exams because they are the best and fairest form of assessment.
“We listened to views from a range of parties, including Ofqual, and given the public health requirements at the time, made what was a very difficult decision on the basis that it was a necessary step to fight the spread of coronavirus.”
The education committee hearing was Ofqual’s first public foray since it announced two weeks ago that it would dump the statistical model it had developed to allocate A-level and GCSE grades this year, and would instead rely on grades produced by teachers and schools.
In a long session before the MPs, the Ofqual leaders sought to explain why it bore little responsibility for the mess, saying that it had informed the government at every step.
The officials said they briefed No 10 a week before A-level results were published, and outlined the expected dangers.
Julie Swan, an Ofqual executive director, said the regulator had “meetings with the schools minister [Nick Gibb] on a weekly basis throughout” and that its advice to ministers in March said that “it would be challenging if not impossible to attempt to moderate grades that would be fair for all this year’s students”.
Swan said: “We briefed No 10 on 7 August, and again the paper written there was very alert to the risks, both to disadvantaged and outlier students, to centres that had expected improved grades this year and the impact on low-entry cohorts including independent schools.”
Taylor also publicly confirmed a report first published by the Guardian last month that he threatened to resign as chair unless Ofqual received public backing from Williamson.
Taylor gave a detailed account of the controversy over Williamson’s proposal that mock exam grades could be used in appeal by pupils unhappy with their Ofqual-moderated results. It was the first explanation of why Ofqual published and then abruptly retracted the appeals notice late on a Saturday night.
Taylor said Ofqual’s board approved the new appeal process, and claimed it was also approved by the DfE, with the guidelines published at 3pm on 15 August. But that evening, Taylor said Williamson phoned Sally Collier – the Ofqual chief regulator who resigned last week – and told her to withdraw the guidance.
“We had agreed [the appeal guidelines] with the Department for Education and, to our understanding, with the secretary of state’s office. We then published this on the Saturday. We were subsequently contacted by the secretary of state later that evening and were informed that this was in fact not, to his mind, in line with government policy,” Taylor said.
After discussion by Ofqual’s board, the advice was taken down just before 11pm on Saturday, with Taylor saying it left the regulator with no option but to ditch calculated grades in favour of centre assessments.
“At this stage we realised we were in a situation which was rapidly getting out of control, that there were policies being recommended and strongly advocated by the secretary of state [Williamson] that we felt were not consistent with our legal duties, and that additionally there was a growing risk around delivering any form of mock appeal results,” Taylor said.
Ofqual feared that Williamson’s proposal would result in 80%-90% of pupils winning higher grades on appeal but unfairly leaving the rest with no recourse. “For these reasons, we felt we were in a situation that was rapidly moving out of control and that it was likely that the only way out of this was to have centre-assessed grades,” Taylor said.
Asked by an MP why Ofqual had persisted with its algorithm “like the charge of the Light Brigade”, in spite of warnings from the likes of Cambridge Assessment, Taylor replied that Ofqual’s process would have worked “if people had been prepared to accept it as the unfortunate consequence” of the coronavirus lockdown.
Taylor also admitted that “the fundamental mistake was to believe that this would ever be acceptable to the public”.
Ofqual told the MPs that it was considering a delay to 2021’s exams, as well as a “plan B” to allow pupils to take exams remotely.
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said Williamson now needed to appear before parliament to explain his actions. “The evidence given by Ofqual has raised serious questions about Gavin Williamson’s role in this summer’s exam fiasco. Gavin Williamson has repeatedly tried to blame Ofqual and officials for the crisis over exams. It is now clear he was responsible,” she said.
• This article was amended on 3 September 2020. Julie Swan told the committee that Ofqual’s advice to ministers in March had been that “it would be challenging if not impossible to attempt to moderate grades that would be fair for all this year’s students”. An earlier version wrongly had this as “it would be challenging but not impossible”.