Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s authority and stewardship of the exam results crisis has come under further attack following a speech he delivered to teenagers at a Leicestershire secondary school.
Johnson had visited Castle Rock High School in Coalville, Leicestershire, on Wednesday as part of his continuing efforts to persuade parents to return their children to school next week.
During the course of his somewhat eccentric address, he blamed a “mutant algorithm” for the chaos that erupted upon Ofqual’s publication of estimated grades for this year’s exam-free school graduation results.
He told assembled pupils: “I am afraid your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm and I know how stressful that must have been.”
In a somewhat bizarre off-the-cuff preamble, Johnson appeared confused about the exact school year the youngsters he was speaking to belonged to, asking: “What year are you? Year 11?”
However, his jovial and avuncular approach appears to have won his young audience over.
The same, however, cannot be said for the country’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Union.
Its joint leader, Kevin Courtney, accused Johnson of trivialising the exams chaos his government had presided over, stating: “It is brazen of the prime minister to idly shrug away a disaster that his own government created.
“Parents, students, teachers and heads will be horrified to see the leader of this country treat his own exams fiasco like some minor passing fad.”
The Johnson administration’s standing on education, he added, has sustained a “long-lasting dent”.
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, repeated her accusation that the responsibility for this year’s school results debacle rested principally “with this Tory government’s incompetence”.
During his school visit, Johnson empathised with young people who had suffered distress over their exam grades this year, adding that he was “very, very glad that it has finally been sorted out”.
Before the seismic eruption of fury from dismayed students, parents and teachers, however, Johnson had sought to defend this year’s extraordinary grading method, describing the outcomes as a “robust set of grades”.
The government was forced by the ensuing backlash into a humiliating U-turn, ditching the algorithmically moderated results of Ofqual in favour of teacher-assessed attainment estimates.
However, even after the volte-face, school minister Nick Gibbs continued to defend the algorithm as “a good model”, adding that “we continued to refine it”.
Ofqual began devising the moderation algorithm after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson instructed the regulator to ensure that there would be no grade inflation this year, even though the circumstances were unprecedented, with standard exams cancelled and schools closed for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During his wide-ranging speech to the students, Johnson waxed lyrical about the power of education to liberate young people from ignorance and set them on an upward path.
Emphasising the crucial importance of youngsters resuming their COVID-interrupted education from next week, he said: “The risk to your health is not from Covid … the greatest risk you face now is of continuing to be out of school.”