Gavin Williamson has said sorry for the A-level results “fiasco” as he faced calls to resign as education secretary.
The government made a major U-turn on Monday by announcing that A-levels and GCSE grades would be based on teachers’ predictions.
It followed anger from students, and others, about the downgrading of 40% of A-level grades by exams regulator Ofqual using a controversial algorithm.
Labour said the government’s handling of exam grades had been “incompetent”, while Tory MP Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, described it as a “fiasco”.
The government’s U-turn, which was announced in time for the announcement of GCSE results in England on Thursday, brings the nation into line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which will all use teacher-predicted grades.
Thousands of students will now receive increased grades but questions remained unanswered about how many of them will get into universities, which have had a temporary cap on places scrapped.
On Tuesday, Williamson refused to answer questions on whether or not he would resign. He apologised to young people who are anxious about their futures.
“I’m incredibly sorry for the fact that this has caused distress,” he told Sky News.
“But the right thing to do was when it was clear that the system wasn’t delivering what we believed, and been assured that it would do, and the fairness that we all expect it to deliver and we all had confidence and belief that it would deliver, then further action had to be taken.
“That’s what I did, that’s the decision that I took and that’s what we did yesterday,” he added.
He claimed the government had put children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds "at the heart" of its grades system.
“That was something that Ofqual, working with partners, was absolutely clear that in all the actions would ensure that that wouldn’t happen,” he said.
He added: “At every stage, both the DfE and Ofqual in terms of the development of a moderated grades system have actually put the issue of making sure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are at the heart of what it does.”
Earlier this month, Scotland had its own school results U-turn after its exam body lowered about 125,000 estimated grades.
The downgraded results were later withdrawn and replaced with original teacher estimates, a move affecting 75,000 pupils.
Williamson said that when challenges emerged in the Scottish exams system, the Government wanted to put a more robust system in place.
He told Sky News: “Going back a number of weeks obviously we’ve constantly worked with Ofqual and we’ve put challenge, consistent challenge, within the system to have reassurance that this is a system that would work and be fair.
“Obviously when we saw the Scottish system and the challenges there, working with Ofqual we wanted to put a more robust and stronger appeal process into the system.
“That’s why we brought forward the triple lock that we put in place before the launch of the exams systems.”
Asked on BBC Breakfast if he would resign, Williamson said: “What we’re doing is we’re focusing on delivering the grades for those children.
“We’re making sure that we’re going to make sure that all schools are returned and I’m absolutely determined over the coming year that I’m going to be delivering the world’s best education system.”
When asked when he first became aware of the problems with the Ofqual algorithm, Williamson said: "Well, it became apparent that there were challenges within the algorithm when we were seeing the results directly coming out and then over the weekend.
"We'd got concerns before when we saw what had happened in Scotland, we wanted to have a more robust system put in place."
We must now learn the lessons from what has happened with the exam results. I’d like to see the minutes of every conversation between the DfE and @ofqual and find out how much this has cost the taxpayer so that it can never happen again. pic.twitter.com/kkg3zpMowa— Robert Halfon MP -Working Hard for Harlow- (@halfon4harlowMP) August 18, 2020
However, Williamson still faced criticism from both his own MPs and further afield.
Earlier, writing in The Sun, Halfon said: "This is a mega mess. But it is better to right something that is wrong than proceed with disaster."
He wrote it was blue-collar workers who gave the Tories the “thumbs-up” at the last general election, but it was “disadvantaged kids who were let down by bungling bureaucrats in this marking chaos. This must never happen again.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Conservatives' handling of the situation "sums up their handling of this pandemic – incompetent".
He wrote in the Daily Mirror: "At a time of national emergency, this is no way to run a country.
"The Tories' incompetence is holding Britain back from recovery."
The algorithm was meant to moderate the process of awarding grades, preventing teachers awarding what the exams watchdog described as "implausibly high" marks to pupils.
But it came under fire over its perceived unfairness and the way it particularly appeared to penalise bright children from disadvantaged schools.
Ofqual's chairman Roger Taylor admitted the regulator had gone down the "wrong road" and apologised.
Students who were awarded a higher grade by the moderation process will be allowed to keep it, but for many pupils the shift to teachers' predictions will see their grades improve.
Shadow universities minister Emma Hardy told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: "Well, I know if I was in charge of the government he certainly wouldn't be in my team, but that's a matter for Boris Johnson.”
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland minister Louise Haigh said Williamson “must resign”, while the Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman Layla Moran told BBC News: “This government is utterly incompetent. Gavin Williamson must go.”
Students have also called for Williamson to step down.
“This has been handled terribly and with poor preparation. It is clear that Gavin Williamson should resign,” said 18-year-old Stanley Lewis, of Edgware, north-west London, who has had doubt cast on his desire to study at Cambridge University.
The exams U-turn puts Williamson’s cabinet role in jeopardy for the second time in his career.
Williamson was sacked as defence minister in May 2019 by then prime minister Theresa May following an inquiry into a leak from a National Security Council meeting about Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network. He denied leaking the information.