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Education Committee writes to Secretary of State on cancellation of summer exams and 2021 series

11 November 2020

The Education Committee has written to the Secretary of State for Education to highlight serious concerns about the independence, accountability and transparency of the exams regulator Ofqual and to call for proper planning to be put in place to ensure students in England are able to sit exams next year.

The letter from Chair of the Committee Robert Halfon to Gavin Williamson sets out the Committee’s findings and recommendations following the problems which resulted from the cancellation of this summer’s exams due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, said:

“The fallout and unfairness from the cancellation of this summer’s exams will have an ongoing impact on the lives of thousands of families. But such harm could have been avoided had Ofqual not buried its head in the sand and ignored repeated warnings, including from our Committee, about the flaws in the system for awarding grades.

A lack of transparency and independence at Ofqual meant opportunities to raise alarm bells were missed. Ofqual should have acted to protect the futures of our young people.

There are arguments to be made for and against Ofqual remaining independent, and for its duties being brought inside the Department for Education directly under ministerial control. It must be absolutely clear to all where accountability lies. What is not acceptable is a half-way house position where lines of accountability for standards are blurred.  

Both Ofqual and the DfE must learn hard lessons from this summer’s exams controversy and move swiftly to ensure exams can take place next year in one form or another. They must ensure a level playing field for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have struggled during COVID. The catch-up fund and pupil premium should be used to help those left behind or at home due to COVID issues.

Ofqual and the DfE must also make sure there is no repeat of the unfairness faced by pupils should the pandemic continue to impact on learning. Young people have already been among some of the hardest hit these past few months and they must be properly supported to ensure they get the future their hard work deserves.”

Committee’s main findings and recommendations

Independence of the exam regulator Ofqual

  • From the Committee’s evidence session in September, it is clear that Ofqual recognised the problems with the model of awarding grades yet failed to raise concerns about its fairness. Instead they simply followed the ministerial direction and hoped for the best— calling into question its independence.
  • The Ofqual board should have had a clear understanding and plan of what actions to take should they have considered a ministerial direction would not be likely to secure confidence and be in the public interest.

Accountability and scrutiny

  • Ofqual should have published its grade standardisation model and alternative models for proper scrutiny from external experts. More strenuous testing of the model and algorithm would have allowed problems to be identified and understood earlier on.
  • Ofqual should have carried out a meaningful mock run of this year’s centre assessed grades, once they were in, to highlight any problems. The DfE should also have sought assurances from Ofqual, particularly given the concerns raised about the standardisation model in the Committee’s report.

Exams 2021

  • The Committee says exams must go ahead in 2021 and robust contingency planning should be put in place as soon as possible to ensure this can happen.
  • There should be careful consideration on whether to continue with the full curriculum should particular local circumstances or lockdowns impact student learning. Any decisions must be informed by an assessment of the learning loss that has occurred since March across schools and how this has varied across the country.
  • There must be a level playing field for exams for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have struggled with COVID. Catch-up funding and pupil premium should be used to help these left behind groups.
  • There will need to be urgent consideration of what approach should be taken in light of the grade inflation that has occurred this August and how standards can be maintained.

The Committee raised concerns about the fairness of the calculated grades system in its report published in July. Following the publication of this summer’s exam results, the Committee held further evidence sessions with both Ofqual and the Secretary of State.

Further information

Image: PA