Gavin Williamson and fellow ministers were warned six weeks ago that the exam algorithm used to calculate grades was badly flawed, it was revealed today.
School Standards Minister Nick Gibb confirmed that he had met with former Department for Education director-general Sir Jon Coles to discuss his fears that the ‘standardisation’ system was inaccurate and would unfairly penalise poorer state pupils.
But despite the system being scrapped amid widespread evidence that its downgrades were heavier on students in larger classes at state schools, Mr Gibb insisted today ‘it had a very small impact overall.’
Sir Jon is also reported to have written to Mr Williamson, the Education Secretary, in July to warn that the Ofqual algorithm, would only be 75 per cent accurate at best when applied to GCSE and A-Level grading.
In his letter Sir Jon also said that using predicted grades for some small groups of students while using the algorithm for large groups would cause unfairness.
Mr Williamson is facing increasing calls to quit as BTEC results were the latest to be pulled last night, just hours before they were due to be released this morning.
Mr Gibb told BBC Breakfast: ‘Jon Coles rang me, we had a conversation and I was concerned about the issues he was raising about the model itself.
‘So I called a meeting with Ofqual and senior officials at the department – this is in mid-July – and we went through the concerns that Jon had.
‘He felt that the model as devised would disadvantage young people from poorer families and so we discussed that in great detail and I was reassured that it would not.
‘And in fact that it turned out that it did not.
‘For all the problems that we encountered, the downgrades of the grades did not disproportionately affect young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.’
When it was pointed out that the system inflated grades more for children in small class sizes – aiding private school children more than those in the state sector – he added: ‘Yes that is true, because statistically if you have a small cohort – and those can be in the independent sector or the state sector – under the model you rely more on the teacher assessed grades.
‘(But) it had a very small impact overall. What I was concerned about always right from the beginning, at the forefront of my mind was that the model should not disadvantage people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that proved to be the case.’
He later told the BBC’s Today programme it ‘certainly was foreseen’ that private school pupils could benefit from the use of the algorithm, adding: ‘We knew that small cohorts had to rely more on the teacher-assessed grade than on the standardisation process, but that applied to the state sector as much as to the independent sector.’
Labour upped its demands for an explanation today, with Mr Williamson’s shadow Kate Green saying: ‘Gavin Williamson was warned again and again about the problems with the grading algorithm, and each time, he did nothing.
‘This endless pattern of incompetence is no way to run a country. His failure to listen to warnings and to act on them risked thousands of young people being robbed of their futures.
‘It is time for full transparency. The Department for Education must now publish all correspondence to and from the Secretary of State in which concerns about this algorithm were discussed, as a matter of urgency.
‘Young people deserve to know how they came to be let down so badly.’
It is understood that Mr Williamson was on a video call with Sir Jon in mid-July to talk about his concerns, but decided to go ahead with the algorithm amid concerns about grade inflation delays to results, The Times reports.
However the education secretary has said that he only knew the full scale of how unfair the algorithm was ‘over the weekend’.
Mr Williamson is now ‘on his last life’ after his humiliating exams fiasco and will be sacked if Boris Johnson’s schools reopening is botched, ministers have claimed.
Today an adviser who helped develop the Ofqual software said there was ‘always an understanding there would be winners and losers’.
Ofqual has always said its system was as ‘fair as possible’ – despite so many pupils’ marks being downgraded.
But speaking on condition of anonymity, the adviser said it was evident that the algorithm would fail as soon as schools began submitting their teacher-assessed grades, between June 1 and 12.
‘There was a very specific point when it became doomed,’ he said.
‘There was clearly always a potential this could blow, because of the nature of it.
‘There wasn’t really even a need to discuss that point, because it was always lingering in the background.’
External advisers had told Ofqual that the formula for deciding the A-level and GCSE results of England’s pupils was ‘volatile’ and ran the risk of producing erratic results, sources told The Guardian.
But the formula was kept in place until the Government had to announce an embarrassing U-turn on Monday, scrapping the algorithm.
Cabinet colleagues now believe that Mr Williamson, who is desperately trying to cling to his job, cannot survive another mishap if he also bungles the PM’s promise to reopen schools in England in time for the new term in September.
While the coronavirus crisis was ramping up in late March, Mr Williamson had warned Ofqual in a letter to ‘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’.
Schools minister Nick Gibb was identified by a senior Tory source as having put pressure on to keep grade inflation low.
A Whitehall source said that there was cross-government and cross-party agreement about moderation of exam results, instead of pressure coming just from ministers.
Labour’s shadow attorney general Charlie Falconer has said that the algorithms was unlawful, and ministers should have known about the 2009 act that sets out Ofqual’s obligations and under anti-discrimination legislation.
Mr Williamson has been facing growing calls to resign, just weeks before schools in England are due to return full-time.
Tory MPs are worrying about the Government’s handling of the results debacle and see it as the latest in a long line of errors during the coronavirus crisis.
One senior Tory MP told MailOnline ‘there is no question’ that Mr Johnson, who is on holiday in Scotland, should be ‘showing his face’ during the crisis.
‘I can see why he would not want to be around so that Gavin Williamson takes all of the flak but it would steady the ship a bit if he did pop up,’ they said.
Matt Hancock suggested the Education Secretary had not been sacked because of his role in implementing Mr Johnson’s vision of reopening schools in England.
‘The big focus is on getting schools back and open at the start of next month, an incredibly important task,’ the Health Secretary told Sky News. ‘I don’t think we should be distracted from that task now. We need to absolutely focus on it.’
Mr Hancock also slammed calls for Mr Williamson to resign and claimed that ministers are ‘trying to do their best’ during the pandemic.
Today Mr Williamson gave his full backing to Ofqual just one day after blaming the exam regulator for the Government’s A-level results chaos.
The Education Secretary is facing growing calls to quit over his handling of the results row, but has said he wants to stay in the role long into the future.
During a series of interviews the Cabinet minister had failed to give his unequivocal backing to Ofqual. But with less than 24 hours to go until students receive their GCSE results, Mr Williamson’s department signalled a change in tack.
It said: ‘As the Government has made clear, we have full confidence in Ofqual and its leadership in their role as independent regulator and we continue to work closely with Ofqual to deliver fair results for our young people at this unprecedented time.’
The department’s statement also suggested the U-turn over exam results which saw a controversial algorithm ditched in favour of teacher predicted grades was ultimately decided by Ofqual rather than the Education Secretary.
‘The decision they took to move from moderated grades to centre assessed grades was one that we agreed with,’ the department said.
The dramatic change in tone is likely to spark speculation that the under-fire minister has been read the riot act by Mr Johnson.
It came as the PM faced growing pressure from his own MPs to cut short his holiday to take personal control of the Government’s education omnishambles.
The PM is not expected to return to Number 10 until next week but the debacle surrounding A-level and GCSE exam results means he is under pressure to intervene.
Mr Johnson’s political opponents have called for him to return early as they claimed the PM ‘cannot be bothered to get back to work during the biggest exams crisis in a generation’.
Calls for Mr Williamson to resign continue to grow, just weeks before schools in England are due to return full-time.
Tory MPs are increasingly worried about the Government’s handling of the results fiasco and see it as being the latest in a long line of unforced errors during the coronavirus crisis.
One senior Tory MP told MailOnline ‘there is no question’ that Mr Johnson should be ‘showing his face’ during the crisis.
‘I can see why he would not want to be around so that Gavin Williamson takes all of the flack but it would steady the ship a bit if he did pop up,’ they said.
Acting leader of the Lib Dems, Sir Ed Davey, said: ‘On the steps of Downing Street the PM said it was his job to close the opportunity gap and that when it came to delivering on his plans that the buck stops with him.
‘The Prime Minister cannot expect us to take his words seriously if he cannot be bothered to get back to work during the biggest exams crisis in a generation.
‘Universities are struggling and thousands of students still have no idea where they will be in the Autumn, the PM needs to take accountability for this awful mess.’
Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders had earlier likened the PM to the famous ‘Where’s Wally’ character, telling the Daily Star: ‘Where’s Wally? More like where is THE wally?’
Demands for the PM to cancel his holiday have also swept social media as Twitter users used ‘Where’s Boris’ and ‘Boris Has Failed Britain’ hashtags to criticise him for his absence.
Mr Johnson is said to have been spotted wearing a bobble hat and sunglasses in Scotland, in an apparent effort to avoid being recognised as he holidays with partner Carrie Symonds amid the ongoing exams crisis.
Despite the growing Tory unease about the performance of some Cabinet ministers, Mr Johnson is said to be resisting calls for an autumn reshuffle with a major shake-up of his top team likely to be delayed until the new year.
The results row unfolded after A-level grades were calculated using an algorithm developed by Ofqual.
But the algorithm meant 40 per cent of grades were downgraded from what teachers had predicted, prompting widespread student and parent fury.
Mr Williamson, known by some in Westminster as Private Pike after the hapless character in the TV show Dad’s Army, had originally backed the algorithm but then earlier this week performed a U-turn as he said grades would be based on teacher estimates instead.
Speaking to LBC Radio yesterday, the Education Secretary blamed Ofqual for the chaos.
When it was put to him that Ofqual had ‘failed’, Mr Williamson said: ‘We ended up in a situation where Ofqual didn’t deliver the system that we had been reassured and believed that would be in place.’
Asked if he had confidence in the regulator, Mr Williamson said: ‘It is quite clear that there have been some real challenges in terms of what Ofqual have been able to deliver.’
And asked if he had confidence in chief regulator Sally Collier, Mr Williamson said: ‘Our focus and what I expect from Ofqual is to ensure that they deliver the grades that youngsters need over… this week and over the next few weeks and ensure that the appeals process is properly managed and people get the grades that they’ve worked towards and that they deserve.’
Mr Williamson’s hopes of clinging on were given a boost this morning after he was defended by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Asked if he would have considered resigning if he was in Mr Williamson’s shoes, Mr Hancock told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘Well, I think that Gavin has faced these very difficult challenges and done his best in very difficult circumstances.’
Tory MPs believe Gavin Williamson was sending a warning to his enemies when he posed for photographs in his office with a whip on his desk after announcing the A-level results U-turn.
Conservative backbenchers believe the whip was ‘not there by chance’ when Mr Williamson took part in the photocall.
They believe it was likely a reminder to MPs and Boris Johnson that as a former chief whip he knows ‘where the bodies are buried’ and that it would be unwise to criticise or sack him.
Mr Williamson served as chief whip for Theresa May’s government from July 2016 to November 2017 when he was tasked with enforcing party discipline and as a result he is likely to know the details of colleagues’ past indiscretions.
The presence of the whip in the photographs – as well as a small red book placed on top of it – sparked widespread comment on social media.
Chief whips are said to keep small black books, similar to the red one pictured, which they fill with information to be used to put pressure on MPs who may be thinking about rebelling.
Tory MPs believe the inclusion of the whip – and the red book – was ‘not done by accident’.
One Conservative backbencher told MailOnline: ‘Why was there a picture with a whip on the desk? That was not done by accident.
‘Is that a reminder to Boris that he knows where the bodies are buried? I don’t know, but it is not going to have been an accident.
‘It is a reminder that he was chief whip. It was extraordinary.’
The MP added: ‘It was not there by chance.’
One Tory MP told the Telegraph that they believed the inclusion of the whip was ‘definitely a message to the PM’.
Another backbencher had told the newspaper that the ‘vultures are circling’ Mr Williamson over his handling of the A-level results chaos.
But they insisted Mr Williamson is a ‘master of finding someone else to chuck under a bus’.
MPs believe Mr Williamson, who played a key role in Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership bid, is likely to stay in the Cabinet because the PM will want to avoid creating a ‘very effective enemy’ who is ‘much better as a fixer or schemer ‘ than as a minister.
Government sources said Mr Johnson valued loyalty and that Mr Williamson had been with the PM ‘from the start’.
Many Tory MPs therefore believe that Mr Johnson will not be ‘bounced’ into getting rid of his Education Secretary.
Education union chiefs have today demanded an overhaul of next year’s GCSE and A-Level exams over fears coronavirus could cut school contact time and called for an emphasis shift away from end-of-year exams – because students find them ‘too stressful’.
Bosses at the National Education Union (NEU), the UK’s largest teaching union, have written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, warning new spikes in Covid-19 could lead to ‘further loss of schooling’.
The union has warned the Government should already be making contingency plans and have called for changes to next year’s exams, in the hope education chiefs can ‘build confidence’ in the grades awarded.
These include reducing the amount of content assessed in 2021’s GCSE and A-level exams, working with teachers to develop a ‘robust’ system for moderated centre-assessed grades.
The NEU also wants an independent review into the assessment methods for GCSEs and A-levels, warning that the current system is ‘over-reliant’ on end of year exams, which ‘increase student anxiety’.
The calls comes after the government’s dramatic U-turn over A-Level exam grades earlier this week, which saw a controversial algorithm system scrapped after thousands of students had their teacher-assessed grades lowered – mostly based upon their school’s previous set of results.
In their letter, NEU chiefs Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney said the controversy around last week’s A-level results ‘must never happen again’.
In the letter, they said: ‘It is clear to the National Education Union that Government needs to make much bigger changes to next year’s exams in order to build confidence that the grades awarded, upon which young people’s life chances are determined, properly recognise and reward their achievements.
‘You should be working, now, to examine different possible scenarios and to develop contingency plans in case of further school and college closures.’
They added: ‘The current over-reliance on end of course exams increases student anxiety and fails to give a fair reflection of what students can achieve.
‘All options should be considered to ensure that young people are rewarded for their achievements, supported to fulfil their potential and not held back due to their background.’
The calls by the NEU, who earlier this month threatened to keep schools closed in September if safety standards for coronavirus weren’t met, comes after top universities called on the Government for additional funds to take on more students.
Universities also called for the cap on the number of pupils studying medicine to be lifted amid fears ministers face a £3billion bailout.
Thousands of students are scrambling to get places at their first choice university after the Government’s screeching u-turn on A-Level results means they now have the grades to get into their first choice places.
But top schools are struggling with the sheer volume of demand as the 55,000 who accepted a place at another university or bagged a new course at clearing are now abandon those decisions to try and get into their top choice.
A number of universities, such as Cambridge, have already said that some students will have to defer until next year.
The government previously urged universities to honour the offers they made to pupils, but Vice-Chancellors were last night in talks with ministers to secure additional funding to take on thousands of additional students.
Meanwhile there are fears that students leaving lower-ranked institutions to go to their first choice could leave them vulnerable financially, with research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggesting this could cost £140million.
They previously warned the loss of the university sector in total could run to as high as anywhere between £3billion and £19billion.
In a further briefing note today the think tank warned that while leading universities would now be ‘awash’ with students, many lower-ranked universities risked losing a substantial share of their intake, which could be ‘financially crippling’.
Report authors Jack Britton and Ben Waltmann said: ‘Lower-ranked universities could dip into the pool of potential students who got no offers or have not yet applied.
‘These students will have much better grades than usual this year, and many might be interested in going to university given the exceptionally tough labour market.
‘Attracting these students could help the lowest-ranked universities avoid large losses. It would also pose a new challenge, as many of these students could be underprepared for their courses, especially having missed out on the experience of actually sitting their A Level exams.’
It comes as the government has been urged to take on more students at medical school, where places are highly-competitive and much of the cost of training doctors is met by the taxpayer.
Institutions are currently in a bind because the number of places at medical schools are capped by the government because of cost – the amount to train doctors exceeds the amount paid by undergraduates in fees – and there are restrictions on NHS work placements.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock this morning told Sky News he acknowledged calls to increase student places and promised that the Government is working on the issue.
A number of students who were planning to study medicine had their grades lowered by the standardised algorithm.
The government has removed the cap for other subjects so universities can take on more students, but kept it in place for medicine and dentistry.
The u-turn by under-pressure Education Secretary Gavin Williamson means students now have significantly improved grades and can try and get into the school of their choice.
Universities UK has written a letter to Mr Williamson to seek ‘urgent assurances’ that he is talking to the Department of Health about increasing the number of medical school places from the current number of 7,500, as reported by the BBC.
The letter also said: ‘The role of universities in training the medical workforce is essential for all regions and nations of the UK, as clearly shown by our members’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic.’
The Royal College of GPs and British Medical Association have also backed calls for more places for medics.
But Dr Helena McKeown, BMA representative body chair, said additional places would require more funding and support from the government.
She said: ‘The BMA has long-campaigned for widening participation in medicine so that all those with the ability and desire to become doctors are given the opportunity to do so. The medical workforce needs to be far more reflective of the diverse patient population it serves, and following the U-turn by Government earlier this week, we have urged medical schools to review the applications of those who were earlier denied places due to the unfair grading process.
‘The UK is vastly short of doctors so increasing the number of medics in training makes sense, however this must be followed up with support and funding for both the universities sector and the NHS further down the line.
‘Extra students will require more clinical placements during medical school, more places in the foundation programme for new doctors, and ultimately the need to create more jobs when they fully qualify.
‘We cannot afford to have new doctors finding themselves unemployed in five or 10 years’ time.’
The University and College Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS) have also signed a joint letter to Mr Williamson, warning the lifting of the student cap – which had aimed to prevent institutions from over-recruiting to make up for lost revenue as a result of Covid-19 – would ‘remove one of the only interventions that the government has made to help mitigate the financial impact of the Covid crisis on universities’.
The letter said: ‘While it is still unclear exactly what the distribution of domestic students across higher education will be, it is widely anticipated that institutions will move as much as possible to honour their offers.
‘This will likely lead to expanded recruitment at high-tariff institutions at the expense of lower-tariff universities, shifting the financial pain from the Covid crisis onto many of the institutions that play a vital role in widening participation and social mobility.’