Saturday, 26 Sep 2020

PM under pressure to ditch holiday and take charge of A-level chaos

Where’s Boris? Demands for Johnson to come out of his tent and take charge of education shambles as he defies calls to sack Gavin Williamson over exams fiasco that has left the Government a laughing stock

  • Boris Johnson is ‘defying calls for autumn reshuffle’ from Tory backbenchers
  • PM is under pressure to sack Gavin Williamson after his exams fiasco last week
  • Matt Hancock today defended Mr Williamson and said he had ‘done his best’ 
  • But Tory MPs believe the Government is being ‘laughed at’ after latest mishap
  • Pressure growing on PM to cut short his Scotland holiday to ‘grip’ results chaos 

Boris Johnson is today facing calls to end his holiday in Scotland early to return to Downing Street and take charge of the A-level results chaos as Tory MPs warned the Government is being ‘laughed at’. 

The Prime Minister is not expected to return to Number 10 until next week but the debacle surrounding exam results means he is under pressure to cut short his break. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has made clear he wants to stay in his role despite growing demands for him to be sacked. 

Tory MPs are increasingly worried about the Government’s handling of the results row and see it as being the latest in a long line of unforced errors during the coronavirus crisis. 

They believe there is a ‘lack of grip’ from Mr Johnson and fear the Government is increasingly viewed by members of the public as ‘hapless’ because there have been ‘too many mishaps’ since the 2019 general election. 

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s political opponents have also demanded he return from his holiday, with Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders likening the PM to the famous ‘Where’s Wally’ character. 

He told the Daily Star: ‘Where’s Wally? More like where is THE wally?’ 

Demands for the PM to cancel his holiday have also swept social media as Twitter users used ‘Where’s Boris’ and ‘Boris Has Failed Britain’ hashtags to criticise him for his absence. 

Mr Johnson is said to have been spotted wearing a bobble hat and sunglasses in Scotland, in an apparent effort to avoid being recognised as he holidays with partner Carrie Symonds amid the ongoing exams crisis. 

Mr Williamson’s hopes of clinging on received a boost this morning after he was defended by Matt Hancock who insisted the Education Secretary had ‘done his best’. 

Despite the growing Tory unease about the performance of some Cabinet ministers, Mr Johnson is said to be resisting calls for an autumn reshuffle with a major shake-up of his top team likely to be delayed until the new year.  

Boris Johnson is currently on holiday in Scotland but he is under pressure to return to Number 10 early to take charge of the A-level results fiasco

The PM is under pressure to sack Education Secretary Gavin Williamson over his handling of the exam results row

Youth protests in front of the Department for Education on August 16. Nearly 280,000 students saw their A-Level grades downgraded by a government algorithm 

Calls to lift cap on number of medical students in UK after thousands of A-level pupils who missed the grades to become doctors reapply with teacher-assessed marks

Ministers are under pressure to lift the cap on the number of students studying medicine in the UK after thousands of pupils missed the grades to become doctors due to the algorithm and are now reapplying. 

Universities have been inundated with calls from students who now have the sufficient grades and are desperate to start their new course at their first choice in September.

Institutions are currently in a bind because the number of places at medical schools are capped by the government because of cost – the amount to train doctors exceeds the amount paid by undergraduates in fees – and restrictions on NHS work placements. 

A number of students who were planning to study medicine had their grades lowered by the standardised algorithm.

But the screeching u-turn by under-pressure Education Secretary Gavin Williamson means students now have significantly improved grades and can try and get into the school of their choice. 

Universities UK has written a letter to Mr Williamson to seek ‘urgent assurances’ that he is talking to the Department of Health about increasing the number of medical school places from the current number of 7,500, as reported by the BBC.

The letter also said: ‘The role of universities in training the medical workforce is essential for all regions and nations of the UK, as clearly shown by our members’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic.’

The A-level results situation comes after the Government has also faced criticism for its handling of the pandemic in numerous other areas, including its botched NHS Test and Trace app, difficulties surrounding the supply of PPE and the delayed decision to make wearing face masks mandatory in certain settings. 

Mr Williamson’s humiliating U-turn earlier this week and his subsequent effort to try to blame the regulator Ofqual for the exams fiasco is seen by a growing number of Tory MPs as one blunder too far.  

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, one Tory said: ‘We have had too many mishaps for a Government that is only a year old. 

‘The Government is now being laughed at. It’s being seen as hapless.’ 

Another Tory MP echoed a similar sentiment as they suggested the PM needed to return to take charge of his Government. 

‘I’ve no doubt Boris is in touch with what is going on but it really just feels as though there is a lack of grip,’ they said. 

A third warned of ‘huge pressure building up at the bottom of the volcano’ and said local elections next May ‘could be an enormous wake up call’ to the Tories. 

‘Brexit and a Corbyn-led Labour party, which won us the election in 2019, will be rotting corpses by then,’ they told the newspaper. 

‘It’s not about what the Government does but whether it is competent. With fiascos like the grading scandal, we are giving our supporters good reason not to come out and support us. That’s a potential for a political tsunami to take place.’

Tories have made private submissions to party whips making it clear Mr Williamson should be sacked. Huw Merriman, who represents Bexhill and Battle, said: ‘It’s not something that should be passed on to Ofqual – the buck stops with government.’

In a round of interviews yesterday Mr Williamson said he was ‘incredibly sorry’ for the distress caused to students – but refused to say whether he had offered to resign as he signalled he wanted to remain in the post long into the future. 

He told LBC Radio: ‘It is quite clear that there have been some real challenges in terms of what Ofqual have been able to deliver. 

‘We ended up in a situation where Ofqual didn’t deliver the system that we had been reassured and believed would be in place.’ 

Ofqual was accused of ‘threatening to undermine public trust in statistics’ last night as the first official probe into the grading fiasco was launched. 

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) launched an inquiry yesterday into the beleaguered exam body’s algorithm – the first in a series of humiliating investigations. 

It came as the Information Commissioner’s Office hinted it may also probe whether the algorithm met data protection laws. 

In a statement, the ICO told the Mail: ‘We understand how important A-levels results and other qualifications are to students across the country. When so much is at stake, it’s especially important that their personal data is used fairly and transparently.’ 

GDPR law says everyone has ‘the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling, which produces legal effects concerning him or her or similarly significantly affects him or her’. 

Ed Humpherson, of the OSR, said in a letter it would ‘conduct a review of the statistical models put in place’, to be published in September. 

Hinting that other probes were likely, he said it would ‘seek to minimise overlap between our review and others’. 

Former schools minister David Laws, executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute, said: ‘We urgently need a fully independent review of what happened this year so that errors made are clearly understood and so that the right lessons are learned for the future.’ 

Ofqual declined to comment. 

Asked if he had confidence in Ofqual chief Sally Collier he merely said: ‘Our focus and what I expect from Ofqual is to ensure that they deliver the grades that youngsters need.’ 

A former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, Sir David Bell, said he had ‘great concerns that scapegoating is happening here’ as he called for an independent probe into what happened and cautioned against blaming officials.

Mr Hancock defended his Cabinet colleague this morning, insisting he was facing ‘very difficult challenges’.   

Asked if he would have considered resigning if he was in Mr Williamson’s shoes, Mr Hancock told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘Well, I think that Gavin has faced these very difficult challenges and done his best in very difficult circumstances.

‘We have reached the decision that allows the students, the pupils, who have got those grades that were predicted by their teachers to be able to get to university and the huge focus now is both making sure they can get to university in only a few weeks’ time and also that the schools reopen in a fortnight.

‘So we have got these massive unprecedented operational challenges that we face in government every single day.

‘We do our very best to rise to them. Sometimes it means making decisions that aren’t always popular but we make the decisions according to what we think is in the best interests of the country.’

The results row unfolded after A-level grades were calculated using an algorithm developed by Ofqual. 

But the algorithm meant 40 per cent of grades were downgraded from what teachers had predicted, prompting widespread student and parent fury. 

Mr Williamson had originally backed the algorithm but then this week performed a U-turn as he said grades would be based on teacher estimates instead.   

The Education Secretary’s allies said he had not been given access to the algorithm until the night before the grades were published. 

But Mr Merriman said: ‘If there’s any fault in this – and there has been – then the fault has to reside with the Government. The Government are responsible. I believe that it’s the Government that runs the country.’ 

Mr Merriman also suggested A-level students should be compensated with reduced tuition fees following their exam results difficulties, telling the BBC: ‘I’d like to see more of an offer now to some of these younger people who have been impacted with A-level grades.’ 

Another Conservative MP described Mr Williamson as a ‘walking corpse’, adding: ‘Can you actually see back to school working OK? It’ll be a dog’s breakfast. He has to go and he has to go now.’ 

One Tory MP said: ‘He hasn’t got a future – or at least he shouldn’t have one. He hasn’t got an ounce of integrity. 

‘He should have offered to go, and now the PM won’t sack him because it’ll be a sign of weakness, as with Dominic Cummings. Gavin has no credibility whatsoever and he now has to sort out the mess with uni places, as well as get children back to school in September. And his track record on doing that has been p*** poor. 

‘He’s got a brass neck blaming Ofqual – they’ve obviously been pretty incompetent, but ultimately the DfE is responsible. Why didn’t he see it coming? 

‘When they scrapped exams, they needed to war game every scenario. Then after the dry run in Scotland, why then did they go and repeat the cock-up? 

‘I have spoken to the whips’ office, along with most of my colleagues – we’ve made our thoughts really, really clear. There is a huge amount of pressure from MPs.’ 

A former Cabinet minister said: ‘The problem is that while officials may have been getting it completely wrong, all the way through Gavin Williamson has simply been accepting their reassurances.’ 

Top civil servant at Department for Education ‘is facing axe’ over series of school disasters 

By Claire Ellicot, Political Correspondent for the Daily Mail

The top civil servant at the Department for Education could be in line for the sack after ministers raised concerns about a series of fiascos.

Jonathan Slater has been permanent secretary at the department since 2016, serving under four education secretaries.

However, his future is reportedly in question – despite Government denials that he will be leaving his post.

Ministers are said to be concerned about the recent failure to reopen schools before the summer, and exam grading.

Should he leave, Mr Slater would be the fourth permanent secretary to vacate their post within seven months.

Sir Philip Rutnam left the Home Office in January after sensationally accusing Home Secretary Priti Patel of bullying. He also said he would take the Government to an employment tribunal.

Sir Simon McDonald said in June that he was going to leave the Foreign Office in the autumn, and Sir Richard Heaton said earlier this summer he was standing down at the Ministry of Justice.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill was ousted earlier this year – and is being given a £250,000 payout. He is due to step down in September, and his replacement has not yet been announced.

Helen McNamara, who was head of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office before her promotion to de facto deputy cabinet secretary, is reportedly set to be transferred to a job as permanent secretary for a large Whitehall department.

Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons education committee, called the situation a ‘mega-mess’ that could have been avoided had ministers listened to a report he published last month.

The committee warned at the start of July that the algorithm could result in ‘significant problems’.  

The Tory MP added: ‘We pointed out some of the flaws in the system – that it might hurt the disadvantaged and so on – and we urged the publication of the model, but none of this happened. 

‘Instead, it was put on a dusty shelf in the Department for Education and at Ofqual and that just shouldn’t have happened.’  

Government ministers Johnny Mercer and Penny Mordaunt also voiced their concerns over the ‘injustice’ of the grading system but so far the Government has chosen to back Mr Williamson despite calls for a reshuffle. 

A Government source told the Telegraph there are ‘no plans for a reshuffle in September’ and the PM has ‘full confidence in the Education Secretary’. 

Some Cabinet ministers believe a major reshuffle will not take place until the start of next year, after the Brexit transition period has come to an end. 

One said: ‘I don’t think we’ll see a reshuffle of any great significance until the New Year, after Brexit has been fully delivered. 

‘I don’t think the PM is minded to do a big next stage of Government reset while the country is still in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and a trade deal is still being negotiated with Brussels.’

The PM is only expected to make ‘minor’ Cabinet tweaks in the coming months with Anne-Marie Trevelyan tipped to replace Ben Wallace as Defence Secretary when her Department for International Development is merged with the Foreign Office next month. 

Liz Truss’ future as International Trade Secretary is also said to be uncertain. 

Another Cabinet minister added: ‘Someone is going to have to go to make way for Anne-Marie, but the PM is facing two competing pressures. 

‘One, he is very loyal to the people who have supported him and doesn’t like firing people, and two, he cannot change much until Brexit is done and the Government’s attention switches from crisis management to economic recovery.’  

The U-turn on A-level results has left thousands of students scrambling to try to secure places at their first choice universities after downgraded grades saw them miss out last week. 

But many are likely to face the prospect of having to defer for a year because some courses will already be full despite the Government lifting a cap on student numbers. 

Lawyers have warned that students could launch legal action against universities if they are forced to delay their entry into higher education.   

Universities have said they will likely need a bailout as students who now have higher grades look to gain entry to higher-ranked institutions or opt to wait a year, potentially leaving lower-ranked universities with gaps on courses. 

The Universities UK body said in a letter sent to Mr Williamson that institutions will need ‘significant financial support from Government’ to stabilise the situation.

The body warned: ‘The move to using centre-assessed grades will rightly address the inequalities suffered by many students from disadvantaged backgrounds by use of the original algorithm.

‘However, it will also result in significant overall grade inflation leading to significant decreases in planned enrolments at a number of institutions as students opt for higher tariff courses.

‘Such institutions whose financial plans were based on the agreed temporary student number controls will now require additional government financial support.’

The Government has set up a task force to examine the issues facing universities after the U-turn. 

In a statement, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: ‘We are working closely with the higher education sector to understand the challenges facing universities and provide as much support as we can.’ 

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