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UK ministers were warned cancelling exams would be ‘worst-case scenario’ – Ofqual

Hand sanitiser in a classroom at Outwood Academy Adwick in Doncaster, as schools in England reopen to pupils following the coronavirus lockdown. Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Media

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

The UK Government was warned that cancelling exams and opting for calculated grades for students amid the Covid-19 pandemic would be the “worst-case scenario”, the Ofqual chair has suggested.

Roger Taylor, chairman of the exams regulator, said ministers decided to abandon GCSE and A-level exams after Ofqual suggested running socially-distanced exams or delaying tests, before cancelling them.

He told MPs that it was a “fundamental mistake” to believe Ofqual’s algorithm for awarding grades “would ever be acceptable to the public”.

His comments come amid continued anger about the handling of grading GCSE and A-level exams which were cancelled during the coronavirus crisis.

Ofqual’s controversial algorithm for awarding calculated grades had appeared to boost private schools’ performance and led to many other A-level students having their results downgraded following moderation.

But addressing the Education Select Committee, Mr Taylor insisted that the standardisation process “reduced the advantage enjoyed by private schools”.

He said: “That is why we felt it was fairer to use the standardisation process as a mechanism to ensure the greatest possible fairness in the circumstances.”

“We do acknowledge that the level of fairness achieved was not felt to be acceptable but it did improve the level of fairness.”

Mr Taylor told MPs that Ofqual’s initial advice to the Secretary of State earlier in the year was to try and hold the summer exams in a “socially-distanced manner”, with the second option being to delay exams.

He said: “The third option – if neither of these were acceptable – would be to have to try and look at some form of calculated grade.”

“We did also look at whether that might be a teacher certificate rather than attempting to replicate exam grades.”
“That was our advice to ministers.”

“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 the system of calculated grades were to be implemented.”

He added that opting for the third option of calculated grades was the “worst-case scenario”.

Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the committee, summarised Ofqual’s defence of the exam chaos as “not me guv”.

He questioned why Ofqual did not use the time between receiving schools’ grades in June and results day in August to test the algorithm “rather than wait until the eleventh hour to realise the algorithm produced discrepancies”.

Mr Halfon said: “Perhaps some of the wild anomalies that sixth form colleges saw surely would have become apparent much sooner.

“In essence, what I am asking is, should you have done your own mock exam in terms of the algorithm?”

Responding to the concerns, Dr Michelle Meadows, executive director for strategy, risk and research at Ofqual told MPs: “We tested the model thoroughly.

“We were confident that the model that we chose was the most accurate overall and the most accurate for those different groups of students.”

Mr Taylor added that the risks with the model were raised with the Department for Education (DfE) “throughout the process”.

Sally Collier resigned from her role as head of Ofqual last week, while the DfE announced that permanent secretary Jonathan Slater would be standing down a day later.