LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s education minister tried on Tuesday to defend a U-turn over a school exam grading system used to replace cancelled tests, which opponents said was another example of the government’s incompetent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, the government ditched a mathematical model used to assess grade predictions made by teachers which had lowered results for almost 40% of students taking their main school-leaving exams.
University places depend on the results but many students found their grades had been downgraded, meaning they failed to meet their provisional offers.
The action only came after days of criticism of the algorithm from distraught students, angry teachers and disgruntled lawmakers from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own ruling Conservative Party as well as the opposition.
Opponents said the exams U-turn was the latest failing by Johnson’s government in its response to the pandemic, following criticism it was slow to impose a lockdown, failed to provide enough protective equipment to healthcare staff and bungled a plan to get pupils back to school.
More than 41,000 Britons have died in the pandemic, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, and life is far from returning to normal.
“The Tories’ (Conservatives) handling of these results sums up their handling of this pandemic: incompetent,” opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said on Twitter.
Johnson and education minister Gavin Williamson were lampooned on the front pages of British newspapers on Tuesday after what the papers described as a “humiliating” U-turn, which days earlier the government had ruled out.
Facing the media on Tuesday, Williamson said the government had acted after realising there were “too many anomalies”, suggesting the blame lay with officials behind the algorithm.
“The right thing to do…when it was clear that the system wasn’t delivering what we believed, and what we’d been assured that it would do, and the fairness that we all expect it to deliver…then further action had to be taken, that’s what I did,” Williamson told Sky News.
A snap opinion poll published on Monday showed 75% of respondents thought the government had handled the situation badly and 40% thought Williamson should resign. He said he would not quit.
The change also puts pressure on universities, as more students have obtained the grades needed to get into their first choice institution. Williamson said the government was working on how to boost their capacity.
“This will cause challenges at this late stage in the admissions process – capacity, staffing, placements and facilities – particularly with the social distance measures in place,” Universities UK, the body which represents the sector, said.
The government’s decision refers only to England. Scotland faced a similar situation and changed its policy last week, and Wales and Northern Ireland have also dropped the algorithm method, which factored in the past performance of the schools as a whole.
Critics of the system said this disproportionately hit students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan)