A former senior civil servant has stepped into a simmering behind-the-scenes conflict between the beleaguered Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the head of Ofqual and the current Department for Education (DfE) permanent secretary, urging against any “scapegoating” of officials.
Signs that Williamson is furious with both first emerged publicly when he twice refused to endorse Ofqual’s CEO and chief regulator Sally Collier during a recent BBC interview.
A number of Conservative MPs have expressed outrage over Ofqual’s much-criticised handling of this year’s A-level results, with one senior Tory saying: “They are bloody useless. The whole organisation is absolutely useless. Ofqual has been a shambles from beginning to end.”
Sally Collier has made no public comment after Ofqual’s algorithmically moderated A-level results were unceremoniously ditched in favour of teacher-assessed grades on Monday this week.
Instead, the regulatory agency’s chairman Roger Taylor, whose own job is also now reportedly hanging by a thread, was left to announce the U-turn.
However, Collier is not alone in potentially facing the sack.
According to the Times, so is DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater, who Williamson is said to hold partially responsible for failing to spot problems with Ofqual’s moderation model.
One of Slater’s predecessors as DfE permanent secretary, Sir David Bell, however, cautioned Williamson against taking knee-jerk actions in the immediate aftermath of the results crisis, calling instead for “a proper independent look at what’s happened so everyone concerned can learn lessons”.
He added: “I have great concerns that scapegoating is happening here. I don’t think it’s conducive to good government.”
The pressure to resign, however, is also mounting on Williamson himself.
His career is thought to be imperilled, not least because he has now admitted that he only became aware of problems with this year’s extraordinary grading process as recently as Saturday.
Supporters of Collier are also concerned that she is being scapegoated.
However, discontent with the role of Ofqual is gathering momentum in the wake of the results debacle.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP who chairs the Education Select Committee, said that he favoured shutting down the regulator and starting from scratch, bringing Ofqual inside the education department.
“If they had a shred of decency, every single one of the board, including the chair and chief executive, should resign,” he added.
Another senior Conservative MP, Simon Hoare, called on Number 10 to rethink the government’s reliance on “executive agencies, quangos and arms-length organisations”, which he believes has become excessive.
These organisations, he said, were daily taking political decisions that ministers not only lacked any control over but also lacked any right to question, to direct or to overrule.
He added: “We need a root and branch review which means we might have to have a larger civil service, more departmental ministers, but the time has come where unaccountable quangos are past their sell-by dates.”
In its defence, Ofqual has pointed out that Williamson himself had issued a directive this spring instructing the regulator to ensure that this year’s A-levels should be assessed in a manner that prevented grade inflation.
This in turn, the Ofqual source told the Telegraph, paved the way for thousands of students to miss out on university places even though they had been unable to sit any exams.