Flop of the Month: Williamson’s exams fiasco is another reputational blow for Government

There comes a point when there have been so many U-turns that the Government is perceived by the public to be travelling in reverse.

Gavin Williamson has survived the exams grading debacle, but what of the Government's reputation?
Gavin Williamson has survived the exams grading debacle, but what of the Government's reputation?

For recent examples related only to education, see the decisions to continue subsidising free schools meals over the summer holidays and to ask secondary school pupils to wear masks in the corridors after all.

But the debacle and subsequent reversal over A-level and GCSE exam grades earlier this month – while Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson and his ministerial colleagues took holidays – imparted the sense of a Government asleep at the wheel, or at least fiddling while Rome burns.

The warning signs that an algorithm was not the best way to decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of students were clear after the exams regulator, Ofqual, told the Government in early August that nearly 40 per cent of grades given by teachers were likely to be adjusted downwards.

When the inevitable hit the fan after results day – and amid an outpouring of anger – Williamson initially tried to defend the decision, telling students that the majority had received a grade enabling them to “progress to the destination they deserve”.

In a highly uncomfortable interview with Sky News, Williamson – tanned from his recent holiday – was accused of presiding over the “biggest fiasco in the history of A-levels” and exposed as a Secretary of State who did not present a mastery of the facts (to put it mildly), let alone a cogent defence.

The interview was a prelude to the inevitable U-turn on teacher-assessed grades a day later.

But public anger was far from assuaged, particularly after it later emerged that Gillian Keegan – a minister with responsibility for post-16 education – was also on holiday at the height of the debacle, while Williamson ‘liked’ her pictures of her hiking break in France on Instagram.

The fact that head of Ofqual, Sally Collier, resigned and Jonathan Slater, the Department for Education’s top civil servant, was sacked in the wake of the affair will only deepen the public’s impression that the wrong person was made to carry the can, while Boris Johnson blaming “a mutant algorithm” for the mess sounds less like a reason and more like "the dog ate my homework".

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