Ofqual ignored exams warning a month ago amid ministers' pressure

Exclusive: Agency said to have been told of risk of erratic outcomes, but was under government pressure on grade inflation

Ofqual was warned at least a month ago of flaws in the exams algorithm that left thousands of students devastated, but the regulator pressed ahead amid longstanding ministerial pressure to prevent grade inflation, the Guardian understands.

External advisers told the regulator that its formula for deciding England’s pupils’ A-level and GCSE results after the cancellation of exams was “volatile” and risked producing erratic outcomes, sources said.

Despite the warnings, that formula was kept in place, leading to a fiasco that saw disadvantaged students worst hit by downgrades, until the government was forced into a U-turn on Monday.

The disclosure raises questions about the extent of ministers’ knowledge of the concerns. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has claimed he only became aware of the scale of the unfairness of the algorithm “over the weekend” when the full detail was published, though a government source said he had raised earlier concerns about the model and sought reassurances from Ofqual.

Universities have warned of mounting chaos as students scramble for places armed with new teacher-assessed grades. Ucas revealed on Wednesday that 15,000 pupils originally rejected by their first-choice university now have the grades to meet their offer, with 90% of them aiming to study at top-tier universities.

With at least one over-subscribed university resorting to the offer of financial sweeteners to persuade students to defer until 2021, the National Union of Students (NUS) organised protests in six cities over ongoing inequalities in the fallout of the crisis and concerns that disadvantaged students will be forced to take gap years.

In late March, with schools closed and the pandemic gathering pace, Williamson publicly warned Ofqual it “should ensure, as far as is possible, that qualification standards are maintained and the distribution of grades follows a similar profile to that in previous years”. The demand was made in a letter to the head of Ofqual, Sally Collier, on 31 March, issued as a ministerial direction under the Children and Learning Act of 2009.

Gavin Williamson, 12 August, to ITV

“[I have] every confidence that the system we have put in place is a robust system, a system that’s fair”

Gavin Williamson, 12 August, to the BBC

“The system, for the overwhelming majority of young people, is going to deliver credible, strong results. It’s a robust system, it’s a fair system, it’s making sure that young people get the grades that they’ve worked so hard towards”

Nick Gibb, 12 August, to Sky News

“Most young people … will get the grade that the teacher sent in to the exam board that they thought they would get.”

Gavin Williamson, 13 August, to Sky News

Q) “Can you give a cast-iron guarantee that you will not be forced into the embarrassing U-turn that John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon were in Scotland?”

A) "Absolutely"

Boris Johnson, 13 August, to reporters in Northern Ireland

“Let’s be in no doubt about it, the exam results that we’ve got today are robust. They’re good, they’re dependable for employers. It’s very important that for years to come people should be able to look at these grades and think these are robust, these are dependable”

Gavin Williamson, 15 August, interview to the Times

“This is it… No U-turn, no change… [In Scotland] you’ve got a system where there aren’t any controls, you’ve got rampant grade inflation. There’s been no checks and balances in that system; it degrades every single grade as a result and in-baked unfairness” 

The diktat from Williamson is understood to have been the overriding concern that led Ofqual to reject warnings from its external advisers before the algorithm was finalised in July.

The schools minister, Nick Gibb, was also identified by one senior Conservative source as having piled on pressure to keep grade inflation down. “Nick must take some of the blame. He has a tin ear, and he’s obsessed with avoiding grade inflation,” the source said.

The Times also reported that Jon Coles, chief executive of the United Learning schools trust, warned Williamson last month that Ofqual’s system would unfairly grade pupils, in a letter and a subsequent call. But Williamson declined to act after receiving “reassurances” from Ofqual, according to a source quoted by the paper.

Williamson finally admitted on Wednesday that Ofqual was responsible for the climbdown – for which he originally took credit – and insisted the regulator had his “full confidence”. He had previously refused to back Collier.

“The decision they [Ofqual] took to move from moderated grades to centre-assessed grades was one that we agreed with,” the Department for Education (DfE) said.

That statement appeared to contradict an assertion from Williamson in interviews on Tuesday, where he originally said there were “large numbers of youngsters … [who] wanted to see action taken, that’s what I’ve done”.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, welcomed Williamson’s change of tone in respect of Ofqual. “Throwing the very people you need to fix the issue under the nearest bus, simply to affect the next morning’s headline, is no way to run any organisation successfully,” Penman said.

“This government already has an instinct to brief and undermine the very public servants who are delivering public services in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Watching ministers scapegoat them live on the news channels will only have further undermined the trust that is so vital between ministers and civil servants.”

A Whitehall source said there had been agreement across government – and cross-party – about the need for moderation of exam results, rather than pressure coming solely from ministers. “There was agreement from the sector, from teaching unions, from the SNP, from Labour in Wales, and there was a full consultation, everyone was aligned on the need to protect the integrity of grades,” the source said.

“There were challenges made to Ofqual and assurances were received but ultimately everyone was working together to try and get a fair system and try and avoid grade inflation. And now it is down to a choice between inflation and equality – but we are in a pandemic and [pandemics] cause havoc.”

In another potential headache for the department, Labour’s Charlie Falconer, the shadow attorney general, said the algorithms formula was unlawful, and ministers should have been aware under the 2009 act which set out Ofqual’s obligations and under anti-discrimination legislation.

Lord Falconer said Williamson’s claim to have only become aware of the issues around the algorithm at the weekend was concerning, citing an education select committee report in July that had raised concerns over pupils from “well-heeled and sharp-elbowed” families benefiting.

He said Williamson must now confirm when exactly the DfE was made aware of concerns about the algorithm and publish any legal advice it had received about the formula.

The NUS has organised protests for 1pm on Thursday outside DfE buildings in London, Bristol, Coventry, Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester.

The deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, said students should remember the anger they felt when they got their results and use it to mobilise politically. On a Zoom call hosted by Young Labour with more than 100 young people, she said: “Remember and keep hold of that anger, that upset, about the injustice this government tried to get away with. Ruining the dreams of thousands.

“Remember how you felt when the government made it clear they didn’t care about our young people. Take that and don’t forget about it.”

Ofqual was approached for comment.


Richard Adams, Jessica Elgot, Heather Stewart and Kate Proctor

The GuardianTramp

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