Isabel Hardman

Ofqual hits back at Gavin Williamson

Ofqual hits back at Gavin Williamson
Gavin Williamson (Getty images)
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Whose fault is the school exam results fiasco? Based on who has left their jobs in the past few weeks, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was officials in the Department for Education and at Ofqual, not the Secretary of State for Education. Gavin Williamson has apologised for the 'stress' caused to pupils, but remains in post and both he and the Prime Minister have been keen to shift the blame for the row onto the exam regulator. Today, Ofqual hit back.

The organisation's chairman Roger Taylor appeared before the Education Select Committee this morning to present his version of events, and claimed that the decision to use what Boris Johnson has called a 'mutant algorithm' to moderate results came from Williamson, not the regulator. He told the MPs on the Committee that Ofqual had suggested to the Education Secretary that exams should not be cancelled and instead be held in a socially distanced manner, or to delay the tests. But Williamson disagreed, he said:

'The third option if neither of these was possible would be to have to try and look at some form of calculated grade that might be a teachers' certificate, rather than attempting to replicate the exam. That was our advice to ministers. It was the Secretary of State who subsequently took the decision and announced – without consultation – that all the exams were to be cancelled and a system of calculated grades would be used. We then received the direction from the secretary of state setting out what he wished to be implemented.'

Labour has demanded that Williamson come to the Commons and explain himself after Taylor's evidence. But politically things have moved on. Tory MPs aren't baying for Williamson to go, not least because they blame the No. 10 operation at least as much as they do the Education Secretary. And they have been distracted by other concerns about how this autumn is going to go, not least now that tax rises are on the cards.

But what this ongoing row does show us is how easy it is for politicians to shift the blame for decisions they have either taken or are ultimately responsible for. Quangos like Ofqual are set up as delivery bodies but they also perform a useful political function in creating a space between a Secretary of State and an unpopular policy. There are heads that can roll before the minister needs to consider his or her own position. 

We can see the same pattern in the way Public Health England has already had to soak up a great deal of the blame for Britain's poor performance in handling coronavirus. Even if a quango has managed a crisis badly – which PHE may well have done – ministers ultimately have responsibility for that organisation, given they set it up in the first place. But by the time the public inquiry into coronavirus has concluded, the chances are that most politicians responsible will have moved on, possibly even out of parliament and away from accountability.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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