Phil Taylor: When 88 per cent of students got their first choice university place on results day, was a U-turn really necessary?

18 Aug

Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist and former councillor in Ealing.

Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of school leavers and their parents will have heard Roger Taylor, Ofqual’s mild mannered chairman, on the news yesterday evening, when he rowed back on the regulator’s use of an algorithm-based moderation process for A levels in favour of grades assessed by teachers. They will note his prompted apology bitterly in many cases.

Now thousands of students will have new hope of getting a university place or one closer to their heart.

The irony is that the overall automated process that links together schools, universities and exam boards had done a great job by many measures already. Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend.

Now university admissions departments will be thrown into chaos having to find new places for students who qualify, and dealing with those that want to withdraw from safety offers and pursue their original first choice. Many universities had already changed their offers to unconditional ones in anticipation of this crisis, notably Worcester College, Oxford.

The problem for those who care about A levels as a qualification, grade inflation and the ability of universities and employers to identify talent is that teachers estimated 38 per cent of exams were worth an A or A*. This means that, not only is it hard to differentiate between candidates this year, but it puts this cohort at an advantage compared to recent ones. Will fairness demand that almost 40 per cent of exams get the top grades next year?

Who is to blame? Certainly Ofqual. It came up with a technical solution to a complex problem, and was not able to convince the rest of the education sector to back its judgement. Who knows whether that is through lack of transparency on its part or an unwillingness on the part of the teaching profession collectively to accept that moderation is a valid process. The spectacle of schools publishing their own results makes you wonder if there wasn’t some professional muscle-flexing going on.

Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief executive, has been notably absent from the public debate. Was a career civil servant, rather than an educationalist, the right person to lead this public body? Taylor, an entrepreneur who made his name with the Dr Foster business, has a background in using statistics to drive health outcomes, but again is not an educationalist.

This was bound to be a political hot potato, especially in August when not much else is in the news. The politics of students waving their attenuated results around was always going to be incendiary. The vast majority of them and their families will be happily planning for the start of term, but the media and the opposition were always going find enough unhappy students to make a silly season crisis. The political failure was to not realise that Ofqual had not done the necessary job of persuasion itself to make its solution stick.

Once again, we have seen an organ of the British state fail to rise to a crisis. Whether it is the Met Police in the 2011 riots, the London Fire Brigade at Grenfell, or Public Health England in pandemic planning and managing Covid testing, we have too many examples of state bodies trundling along doing business as usual but unable to flex at speed to deal with a crisis.