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26 August 2020

Is the government dodging the blame for the exam results fiasco?

A second senior official has resigned over the debacle – but the Education Secretary remains in place.

By Stephen Bush

Jonathan Slater, the top civil servant at the Department for Education (DfE), is to leave his post in the wake of the exam results fiasco. Slater will step down on 1 September. The head of Ofqual, Sally Collier, has also resigned. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, who is ultimately responsible for the department, remains in place.

Are officials being made scapegoats for political failures? Well, yes and no. Ultimately, Ofqual is an independent body, and while it performed well within the confines of the impossible task it was set – to generate exam results without exams – ultimately, if an independent regulator is incapable of declaring publicly that it has been set an impossible task, its leadership has failed and should be replaced. That Ofqual has also been accused of rejecting help from the Royal Statistical Society is also another blot on its leadership’s record. 

That Williamson instructed Ofqual to avoid grade inflation is frankly a secondary issue; the problem was that there was no meaningful way to produce comparable exam results as in previous years. That is as true of the results that the government ultimately ended up issuing and accepting as it was of the ones proposed. The only winning move was not to play, and Ofqual’s failure was in either not seeing that, or seeing it and not telling the public.

But that case is far from clear in the DfE itself. The basic political problem this year is, ultimately, a policy problem: you can’t generate exam results without the exams taking place, and no matter how you tinker with an abacus, you will upset somebody. In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, this year’s students have no comparable exam results from which you could meaningfully generate results – all you can do is hand out grades, fairly arbitrarily, based on the previous performance of pupils in the same school.

Why did both John Swinney, the Scottish Education Secretary, and Gavin Williamson try to do it anyway? Was Williamson made aware of the difficulty of the task, only to press on regardless? Or did officials fail to adequately prepare him? We don’t know, and one thing this row highlights is that we need greater transparency, which is why civil servants should make more frequent use of the requirement that ministers provide an official “direction” – that is, a written and detailed instruction. The big political bet that the government is making is that we won’t discover in the coming weeks and months that the fault lay with Williamson rather than Slater. 

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I suspect, however, that the cause of this crisis goes beyond one secretary of state. That the governments in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all opted to moderate exam results without having any exams to draw on is, in of itself, troubling and suggests bigger problems than just one politician, however unimpressive their tenure at the DfE may be. The whole mess is exactly what inquiries are made for: something has gone very wrong somewhere, and to prevent a recurrence, we need a serious and thorough look at the issue. The problem is we are not getting an inquiry; we are getting the usual approach from Boris Johnson’s government, which is to blame the nearest official. 

The government has rearranged Public Health England without first holding an inquiry into what went wrong and right with the UK’s response to Covid-19, and there is no guarantee that the new health body that succeeds it will be any better equipped – nor can we even accurately describe whether or not the new body is the right solution. Now another department is responding to a crisis without first conducting an inquiry, and we once again can’t say for certain that it is making the right response.

That speaks to the bigger problem: it’s not just that this government, like all governments, makes mistakes. It’s that this government is uniquely averse to transparency, which means its response to a setback is always shrouded in secrecy. Bad governance is the inevitable consequence of this approach.