Starmer calls for Gavin Williamson to be sacked over exam failures

Elliot Chappell

Keir Starmer has called for Boris Johnson to sack Education Secretary Gavin Williamson over his handling of exam results throughout the pandemic and the widening attainment gap between private and state school pupils.

Asked during an interview with The Guardian whether the Prime Minister should remove Williamson from his cabinet post, the Labour leader replied: “Yes, yes and a long time ago. And I don’t think I’m alone.”

A-Level results released on Tuesday saw a record 44.8% of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland receive A* or A grades. 6.9% of students in England were awarded three A*s, compared with 4.3% in 2020 and 1.6% in 2019.

The proportion receiving a top grade was higher among private schools (70%) than academies (42%) or comprehensives (39%). Ofqual recorded that attainment of an A or higher between pupils on free school meals, Black students or those with a “very high level of deprivation” and their peers has widened since 2019.

Starmer has reiterated his criticism that the Conservatives have overseen an education system with “baked-in unfairness”, and rejected calls to mirror recent changes to GCSEs by switching to numerical grades for A-Level results.

“The problem is not whether we go to a one to nine system; the problem is the baked-in unfairness. The gap between private schools and state schools has gone up. It was 20%, now it’s 30%. Instead of closing that gap it’s got worse,” he said.

“If you just brand it one to nine, it doesn’t solve that problem. The question the government has to answer is: why was the attainment gap so big before? Why is it even bigger now?”

Ofqual equalities data shows that the gap in A grade attainment for pupils on free school meals and their peers has grown by 26% since 2018, and by 21% over the last four years between Black students and their white counterparts.

Exams were cancelled for the second consecutive year as a result of Covid. Last year, A-Level students had their results downgraded from school estimates with a controversial algorithm before ministers U-turned and scrapped the mechanism.

Teachers across the country instead submitted decisions on pupils’ grades after drawing on a range of evidence including mock exams, coursework and in-class assessments using questions put forward by the exam boards.

Asked whether private school teachers had been too generous in their grading, Starmer said the attainment gap appeared to be to do with a “lack of a coherent framework to do the assessment” provided by central government.

“Some were testing very often and some not very often,” he said. “It led to the widening and now yawning gap between private and state schools. The hallmark of this government is wherever there is an inequality they can make it bigger and they are very busy doing that.”

His comments come amid rumours that the Education Secretary may be removed from his post in a long-awaited reshuffle of the cabinet. Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has been mooted as a possible replacement for Williamson.

A-Level and BTEC results were released on Tuesday and GCSEs today. 30% received GCSE grades seven and above this year (equivalent to A and A*) compared with 27.5% in 2020 and 22% in 2019, the last year for which formal exams were held.

68% of children in state grammar schools in England received grades seven and above this year. 61% of those at independent schools gained top grades while comprehensive schools gave grades seven and above to 20% of GCSE entries.

Formal exams for the Highers were also cancelled in Scotland due to the pandemic. The percentage of pupils achieving A to C grades fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 87.3% this year, although it remains above the 75% pass rate achieved in 2019.

Concerns have been raised that a trend of inflated grades becoming the new normal will make it difficult for universities and colleges to select students accurately and fairly, with more deprived students likely to be worse affected.

“Everyone appears to have got better results but the gap between private schools and state schools has grown. I think 50% better increase in the results in private schools in comparison to state schools. So, if that’s levelling up it’s not my version of levelling up,” shadow minister Toby Perkins told Sky News this morning.

“But I think the most important thing here is that we make that going forward in this immediate year universities and colleges and schools get the support they need to handle the situation that they now have, which is far more students having achieved their offers than what was expected.

“It means that we have more students doing level three qualifications in college, fewer students doing level two qualifications in college and it may mean that there are students who may need additional support because they’re possibly doing a higher level than what would have been expected previously.”

Starmer warned the Conservatives ahead of results being released this week that a second year of education and exams chaos was “not an option”. He called on the government to meet three tests by August 31st, ahead of schools returning:

  • A next step guarantee for pupils – the government must work with universities, colleges, training providers and employers to ensure that all young people can move on to the next stage of their lives. With private schools reportedly already lobbying for their students, Universities must give additional consideration to state school pupils without these advantages.
  • An appeals system that works – the government must ensure all schools and exams boards are equipped to swiftly process appeals so no young person misses out on their place at university, college, in an apprenticeship, or in work, because of a slow appeals system. Students who meet the conditions of an offer on appeal should be accepted to start this year.
  • Support for education professionals – All results being awarded in the same week will put huge pressure on stretched school and college leaders and teachers, who have worked tirelessly this year. The Government must set out the support which will be available to staff so they are equipped to advise and support pupils need urgent clarity on the support available to them throughout results week.”

Labour called earlier this week for a ‘next step guarantee’ to ensure that students who have had their education “disrupted so profoundly” by the pandemic and government policy over the last two years do not “fall between the cracks”.

Kate Green has urged ministers to adopt the ‘children’s recovery plan‘ put forward by Labour, with the party describing the support unveiled by the government to compensate for Covid disruption as “pathetic”.

Labour’s children’s recovery plan includes supporting small groups for tutoring for “all those who need it”, breakfast clubs and activities, mental health support, professional development for teachers and greater education investment.

The Shadow Education Secretary called on Williamson to offer his resignation earlier this year, telling MPs that his record throughout the pandemic had been “shambolic” and that the minister had “bounced from one crisis to another”.

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