Here are two early sketches of a first draft of history. Their subject is the A-level and GCSE results multishambles. The first pins responsibility on Ofqual and the second on Ministers.
The case against Ofqal
The point to grasp at the start is that Ofqual is independent of government [our italics]. It was set up under Labour in 2008 to replace the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which itself was set up under Labour in 1997. But which was an executive non-departmental public body of the Department for Education [our italics again].
In other words, Ofqual, crucially, is not under Ministerial control. It is part of the quangoisation of Britain of which Daniel Hannan has so often complained, which seeks to “take politics out of decision-making”, and of which Andrew Lansley’s health reforms were a continuation.
In this view of events, Ofqual is bound to be compared with Public Health England – a product of those reforms which Matt Hancock is now poised to scrap. Perhaps a better comparison would be with NHS England, which is run in effect not by Ministers but by its Chief Executive, Simon Stevens.
It therefore follows that neither Gavin Williamson nor Nick Gibb had the power to compel this body – with its Director of Policy and Strategic relations; Associate Director of Strategic Policy and Risk; Director of Strategic Relations, eleven press people and over 200 staff (hat-tip: John Redwood) – to divulge its algorithm.
But for all this mass of staff, there is a curious lack of educational know-how at the top of Ofqaul. Sally Collier, its Chief Regulator, served previously at the Crown Commercial Service. Its executive director, Julie Swan, worked at the Law Society. Roger Taylor, its Chair, was a healthcare businessman and Financial Times journalist.
Perhaps this distance from schools explains a certain secretiveness. It is claimed that Ofqaul rejected approaches from the Royal Statistical Society, which wanted more transparency about its now notorious algorithm, but was rebuffed.
Gavin Williamson appears to have been preoccupied with school reopenings, and so to have handed over responsibility for dealing with this year’s results to Nick Gibb – the most long-serving Minister in Government; a man passionately committed to raising school standards, and a bit of a ConservativeHome hero.
Gibb warned Downing Street that this year’s results would create a rumpus because they would produce winners and losers without the mediating usual role of exams. But, crucially, he didn’t tip it off about the altorighm. This was because he hadn’t seen it. Ofqual hadn’t shown it to him or to civil servants, and couldn’t be forced to.
It instead offered reassurances and briefings that turned out to be worthless. Ofqual’s writ runs only in England. But it is striking that Gibb and Williamson, like SNP Ministers in Scotland, Labour ones in Wales and a mix in Northern Ireland, were flying blind. Williamson said yesterday that he saw the algorithm only last weekend.
However, England has an appeals process – unlike Scotland. Williamson and Gibb’s first instinct was to use it, plus mock exams, as the basis for revising the A-level results. The Education Secretary insisted that there would be “no U-turn”, “no change”.
Ofqal made Ministers’ position impossible when it issued advice on the matter, over the weekend, and then withdrew it on the same day. This was the cue for frantic discussions within it and Government about whether to seek to prop up the results or pull the plug on them.
The former course would have meant appeals for A-levels, which ConHome argued for yesterday, plus tweaking the algorithm, perhaps to ensure that no pupil could be marked down by more than one grade. At any rate, the decision was made to go with teacher predictions both for GCSE and A-level.
All in all, the moral of the story is the same as in heathcare with the Coronavirus. Politics can’t be taken out of decision-making. Ministers need more power, not less: because ultimately they – not Ofqual’s algorithm; not “the science” – are responsible for decisions. Ofqual should be scrapped or absorbed into the Education department.
The case against Ministers
This take on events begins with the claim that Ofqual is not quite as independent of government as some are now suggesting. Ed Balls argued yesterday on Twitter that Ministers will have set the overall framework for constraining grade inflation this year.
At any rate, Ministers should have seen the problem coming down the tracks. As this site pointed out yesterday, the annual release of exam results is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – event in the Education Department’s annual cycle.
Sam Freedman, a former senior adviser to Michael Gove when the latter was Education Secretary, tweeted yesterday that Williamson and Gibb not seeing the data until last weekend is “astonishing. Even in a normal year we saw the data a few days before release. How on earth did they not ask to see it?!”
According to this version of events, the conscientious, toiling Gibb – who was widely praised for his record by many of the MPs that ConHome has spoken to during the last few says – nonetheless lacks the bastardly sense of self-preservation more frequently found among less noble politicians.
Rather than have a public fight with Ofqual, and clamour for sight of the algorithm, he and Williamson decided to sit it out and wait for the results. The Scottish debacle threw them into a panic. There was no final appeals process. The Government decided in any event to tamper with what was in place to include “valid mocks”.
In sum, they failed to clear their lines with Ofqual; had no durable definition of what a “valid mock” might be, hadn’t worked out a position on whether appeals should be paid for – and only saw the results problem steaming down the tracks after it had created havoc in Scotland.
Gibb may be the most dedicated of Ministers. And Williamson may be the ultimate “good soldier” – unfairly swotting up the blame, as he did over primary schools failing to open by the end of July, for decisions that were not ultimately made by him.
But the exams disaster, together with the further problems that yesterday’s necessary but consquential retreat will pose, supports a view increasingly common on the Tory backbenchers, and with which ConHome is basically in agreement.
Which is that Boris Johnson appoints his senior Ministers on the basis of compliance, not competence – taking his cue from what he once claimed to be his favourite movie scene, “the multiple retribution killings at the end of the Godfather”.
Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, Damian Hinds, Geoffrey Cox – all these non-supporters or potential rivals have been sacked from Cabinet and sidelined. There are no “greybeards” – no David Davis; no Iain Duncan Smith. The co-Party Chairman in the Commons, Amanda Milling, is scarcely visible, since there are no elections this year.
A stronger Cabinet might include any of these, plus Mark Harper and Graham Brady, or a rehabilitated Sajid Javid and Andrea Leadsom. Andrew Mitchell has proved that he can run a department, and it may be that enough time has passed to allow a return. One of the most capable former Ministers on the backbenches is Damian Green.
We’ll return in due course to some of the younger Ministers and MPs who might move up, many of them women, rather than former ones who would add weight to an inexperiecned team. But the general point holds: the Cabinet need some members with previous experience of running a department – inter alia, to deal with quangos like Ofqual.
Regardless of which version you prefer, the Education Secretary must lead school openings in roughly a fortnight. Which is why the department needs new leadership.
You will choose which of the above versions you prefer, or a mix of the two. We add only one point. That anyone claiming to know the full story today doesn’t really do so. Time will bring clarity.
Schools will begin to return on September 1 or so – more or less a fortnight today. Perhaps parents will need no encouragement to send their children back. Maybe fear of Covid-19 is falling as death totals drop. Perhaps teaching unions will no longer be able to find reasons for delay.
If so, Gavin Williamson will be able to stay on as Education Secretary without immediate consequences for his department, schools or pupils. But all may not run as smoothly, at least until furlough ends in late October. That’s still more than two months away.
In which case, Education may lurch from one crisis to another – as argument rages in any event about the consequences of yesterday’s U-turn, with colleges and universities queueing up to demand new revisions and more money.
It is a cardinal principle of the Johnson/Cummings operation not to bow to media pressure. In which case, they will stick with Williamson, who Number Ten rates highly for his political acumen. “Every piece of advice he’s given us privately has been right,” one senior figure told ConHome recently.
But a Cabinet Minister who one week promises no U-turns one week, and the next week presides over one, is a Cabinet Minister with weakened authority. Williamson’s real political strengths, which his critics are unwilling to concede, is as a wheeler-dealer insider operator.
The Prime Minister would gain from a small shuffle that moved Williamson to Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg to a trade or finance post, and sent a Cabinet Minister to Education who knows how the wheels of government work. Our candidate is Oliver Dowden. It won’t happen, but it should.