A sorry start to the new term for Gavin Williamson

How thrilling to see Gavin Williamson answer for the sorry performance of the Department for Education over the summer.

I use the word “answer” in the loosest possible sense – as indeed did Williamson. His statement, delivered to his Labour and SNP shadows mere minutes before he got to his feet in the Commons, offered a HBO-style recap – “previously on examnishambles”, if you will – of the events of the summer.

Let’s remind ourselves. The “calculated grades” algorithm highlighted the attainment gap that exists every year at A level, but without the reassuring fiction that is the “level playing field” of the exam hall. Despite having watched a preview version of this play out in Scotland, and enjoyed his party counterparts calling for the resignation of John Swinney, our hero released a confusing change to the appeals process at 10.30 two days before JCQ results day, before following Swinney’s solution to the letter the following week. Meanwhile home schooled students await details of an autumn exam series without any offer of support, and some BTEC students still don’t have grades.

These weren’t the accusations thrown at him by Kate Green for Labour or Carol Monagan for the SNP – that was his actual speech. On higher education an agreement with providers to honour offers, with high-cost funding and additional medical and dental places was offered – forgetting that the Department of Health had yet to agree their end of that particular bargain, and that the agreement was only “where possible”. Offers of deferral or an alternate course may also be on the table for some.

The to-do list grows ever longer

Amid agreement that children should return to school it became clear just how much work Williamson still has to do. An announcement on a delay to the 2021 exam series was trailed earlier in the day (based, assumedly on responses to the Ofqual consultation), but we are left with the idea still floating – another uncertainty for students, teachers, and universities to handle. The Secretary of State was well enough acquainted with the consultation responses to lament the lack of one from the Labour party, but seemingly not well enough to offer a plan for the next year. likewise we were assured that Pearson were working hard to deliver those BTEC grades and that governments across the UK were working together to implement things that had already happened in Scotland.

The was some new information. If you were wondering where the “mutant algorithm” came from, Liberal Democrat Daisy Cooper managed to secure the bewildering answer that it was invented to avoid socio-economic bias in grade prediction, based on an analysis of research. An analysis perhaps not deep enough to suggest that A levels themselves show this same pattern.

And discussions with the Treasury on HE funding are ongoing – the biggest surprise of the speech was that the existing DfE Restructuring Regime (largely now believed to be a story designed to scare vice chancellors at UUK sleepovers) did not merit a mention. Efforts will be made to support the UK’s “brilliant university sector” said Williamson through gritted teeth.

More questions than answers

Labour’s Kate Green offered a few more items for the departmental kanban board – what about students who had missed their initial first choice but saw regrades come too late to secure their place? What will be the impact on universities who will lose students in a state of affairs that the now-abandoned cap was designed to avoid? How exactly will 2021 exams be fair?

But earlier in the day Daniel Zeichner asked Matt Hancock the true question of the moment – how can we ensure that students and staff can return to campus safely? The answer, such that it was, involved the DoH talking to DfE. Given the triumphant performance of the latter over the summer, we can but wonder.

Carol Monaghan hit the nail on the head as she lamented, in purest Drumchapel, that Williamson’s coat was “not even on a shoogly peg”. The problem with having a Prime Minister who will only sack officials is that we are forced to watch senior politicians descent into near-Grayling levels of farcical inadequacy without hope of respite. Williamson’s haunted soul screams for release, but still he has to field questions about next summer while struggling to get through the next five minutes.

Tomorrow sees Ofqual management face the Commons Education Committee – the week after next Halfon and the rest get to question the Secretary of State, who will somehow still be Gavin Williamson.

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