Gavin Williamson says holding GCSE and A Level exams this year ‘would have hit disadvantaged children hardest’

Pressing ahead with GCSE and A-Level exams this summer would have hit the most disadvantaged children the hardest, Gavin Williamson said today.

The education secretary was quizzed by MPs on the education committee today after the exams furore which saw GCSEs and A-Levels being recalculated at the eleventh hour.

He admitted that exams regulator Ofqual had suggested holding exams in a socially distanced way in the summer, or pushing them back to September.

Mr Williamson said he chose the option of cancelling exams and using calculated grades instead because it was fairer.

He said his biggest worry if exams went ahead in June or September was that “the people who would suffer the most were the children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds…black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

“A lot of people also felt they would be the ones most disadvantaged by running that exam series.”

He said holding exams in the summer would not have been viable, and if they had been held in September children would have missed large chunks of learning, and results would be delayed.

Using calculated grades “felt like the very best decision in one of the most challenging situations anyone could imagine ourselves in.” he said.

Mr Williamson insisted he acted to ensure there was the “maximum amount of fairness” for every student.

He said there was “always a concern” that there would be some students that would not have the grades they “truly truly deserved.”

He added: “Without a doubt any process you introduce in the midst of a pandemic is going to have its challenges.”

He said Ofqual, which introduced the now discredited algorithm, “came forward with a good and solid set of policies” but fundamentally the idea of calculated grades “was not something that was going to be acceptable and wasn’t something that did work for people.”

All A-Level and GCSE exams were cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Grades were calculated using a controversial algorithm which took into account the past performance of a student’s school.

Exams regulator Ofqual insisted the algorithm was fair but after results were awarded it emerged that many bright A-level students had been unfairly marked down and failed to get into their top choice universities.

Four days after A-Level results day Mr Williamson announced the algorithm would be scrapped and students would receive their teacher assessed grades instead, and GCSE students would also have their grades calculated in the same way.

The education committee had previously warned in a report that the now discredited system could be unfair on certain groups, including disadvantaged students.

At a previous hearing of the education committee, the chair of Ofqual said it had wanted exams to go ahead despite the pandemic and recommended to Gavin Williamson that they should not be cancelled.

Roger Taylor said the second option Ofqual favoured was to delay exams and the third option was to give students “some form of calculated grade” such as a teacher certificate rather than trying to replicate exam results.

Mr Taylor said that despite this advice Mr Williamson announced exams were to be cancelled.

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