Iain Dale: Davey is the new LibDem leader. But only 57 per cent of his party’s members could be bothered to vote

28 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

So we now have two party leaders who we have to call Sir. (Can it really be long before we all have to imagine the words, ‘Arise, Sir Ian Blackford’?)

After an interminable leadership campaign, the Liberal Democrats announced yesterday that Ed Davey has been elected their new leader, walloping Layla Moran by 43,000 votes to only 25,000.

It’s interesting to note that while 88 per cent of Conservative members voted in the 2019 leadership contest, only 57 per cent of LibDems could be bothered to vote for either Davey or Moran. Make of that what you will. I wonder how much is down to the constant ‘wokery’ they both invoked, especially on Trans issues.

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It was announced this week that both Sally Collier, the Chief Executive of Ofqual, and Jonathan Slater, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education, are leaving their posts. Given the exams fiasco, this is to be welcomed, and the moves are an acknowledgement that those who presided over it have had to take the consequences of the crass incompetence displayed by both their departments.

But hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. If officials are despatched in such a summary manner, should not the same apply to their political masters too?

It is reported (but not confirmed) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation to the Prime Minister, but that it was refused. Nick Gibb says he thought seriously about resigning but concluded that it would be the wrong thing to do.

I like both of them, and it pains me to say it, especially in this forum, but they must know they are dead men walking. Presumably they are only still in their jobs because of the importance of what is to happen next week, when pupils go back to school.

Once that is over (whether it goes smoothly or not) the best thing would be for them to be replaced PDQ, rather than wait for an expected January reshuffle. It’s not fair on the Education Department to have two lame duck ministers presiding over it for another four or five months.

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The Government’s policy on facemasks in schools has not, shall we say, exactly been as clear as it might have been, but can we get one thing straight? An adjustment of policy is not a U-turn.

This media obsession with them is getting out of hand. When scientific, medical and WHO advice seems to be changing almost weekly on the issue of facemasks, can it be any surprise that the Government’s position changes too?

Yes, Nicola Sturgeon made her announcement a few days before the Westminster government did, but the London media seems to forget that Scottish schools returned ten days ago. If the phrase U-turn is to be used to characterise a reversal of government policy, let’s use it when it really is a proper reverse ferret. This is not one of those occasions.

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This evening, I’m appearing on Radio 4’s Any Questions which, let’s face it, is a funny think to do when you’re supposed to be on holiday.

I only found out recently that the bulk of listeners to the show listen to the Saturday lunchtime repeat rather than on a Friday evening. It’s a show in which there’s a tremendous opportunity to make a complete arse of yourself. I’ve been on it about a dozen times before and so far I don’t think I have, but there’s always a first time.

You genuinely don’t know the questions in advance, but have to be a bit of a dunce if you can’t predict at least three of the subject areas. However, this week it’s a little more challenging given there haven’t been any really dominant news stories.

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In related news, my own version of Any Questions is returning to the LBC airwaves on Wednesday 9 September. Cross Question also features four panellists, but they take questions/calls from LBC listeners and we also live stream it on video.

It’s a little less formal than Any Questions, although Chris Mason has introduced much more informality since he took over the presenting reins from Jonathan Dimbleby. We had to pause Cross Question in March, since we couldn’t have four guests in the studio. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to have two guests in the studio and two on giant video screens. Hopefully, it will work!

John Bald: Ofqual needs a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education. If these can’t be found, we must start again.

20 Aug

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

Ofqual’s A level grades could not stand. The standard for a judicial review – that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have reached the decision in question (Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation, 1948) was met with ease.

Failing a person without even looking at their work can never be reasonable. It is equally clear that Ofsted’s Saturday night U-turn was the result of its Board, which not met since last September, deciding  that it was not going to go down with the Chief Regulator and Chairman. Ofqual should have spent the money it wasted on Public First on some decent legal advice. A first-year law student could have told them.

Last week’s dog’s dinner has been followed by a dog’s breakfast. As universities struggle with the flood of candidates deemed successful, while the smaller number who feel let down by their schools are left with no redress, schools and sixth forms are hit with a huge increase in top GCSE grades.

In fairness to Gavin Wilkinson, his instruction to Ofqual when the exams were cancelled in March, was “that these students should be issued with calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”Ofqual was legally required to do this, but instead overruled these calculations via a statistical rigmarole that took no notice of them, except where they had five or fewer candidates in a subject.

The Chief Regulator and Chairman decided to do it their way,  and so hit the rocks. To that extent, the Government is justified in saying that the mess is Ofqual’s fault, and its expression of confidence in the Chief Regulator would shame a football club chairman.  The DfE’s own failure lay in not following its instructions through to ensure that they were carried out.   The Daily Mail’s front page cartoon of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State as Laurel and Hardy sums it all up.

So, what now? First, we need to get rid of the idea that these grades are results. They are not, and cannot be relied on. Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools had given borderline candidates the benefit of the doubt, but this is not quite the case.

A university source from the North of England told me that many had given the most optimistic estimate of what might have been achieved with full teaching and revision, but that some had simply entered mock results, even if these had been lower than teachers’ estimates. No appeal was available, and university places had been lost as a result.

Barton’s view is more realistic than the corruption that took over GCSE school-based assessments, but the conflict of interest can’t be disguised.  When a school gives a pupil an A, it gives itself one too, and I’ve seen unjustified top grades lead to pupils struggling and failing in the next stage of education.

Ofqual itself is an odd fish. Devised by Labour in 2009 to counter well-founded suspicions of dumbing down and grade inflation, it is, like Ofsted, notionally independent, but must “have regard “ to government policy when publicly directed to do so.

This leaves the Chief Regulator very wide discretion, exemplified by Sally Collier’s statement, after lowering A level grade boundaries in 2017, that “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well. All our kids are brilliant”.  If all are brilliant, all must have prizes.  In the end, Oqual’s Board meeting on Saturday simply obliged her to base judgements on Williamson’s instruction, rather than ignoring it. What the Board could not do was meet his instruction to take account of additional evidence, hence opening the floodgates.

The statute requires Ofqual to perform its functions “efficiently and effectively”. It has failed to do so, but it is unfair to judge an educational body on its handling of a pandemic. More important are its failure to ensure fair and equitable grading – leading to able pupils taking physics and languages receiving lower grades than in other subjects – and a structure that allows its chief regulator to base major decisions on personal views. Improving supervision by the Board, and appointing a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education may both help. Failing that, we need to start again.