On 13 August 2020 nearly 300,000 teenagers nervously opened their A Level results – and furore immediately erupted. Nearly 40% found themselves awarded grades lower than expected, costing them places at prestigious universities and sending many into a panicked clearing tailspin.
But this was no normal exams disappointment because, of course, in 2020 there were no exams. With schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the usual exams period was suspended and grades were awarded, instead, by a controversial algorithm which relied largely on a school’s past performance. Leaving no room to take into account individual intelligence, previous test scores or teacher assessments, within hours it became clear the algorithm rewarded those at wealthy private schools and punished those at institutions in more deprived areas. Accusations of classism and racism erupted across social media from distraught parents and children. And the man at the centre of this drama? Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson.
But this wouldn’t be the end of Williamson’s exams SNAFUs. Within a week the government was forced to do a u-turn, saying both GCSEs and A Levels would now be graded according to teacher assessments. The announcement, however, came so late that, the day before they were due to be released, BTec grades where postponed in order to be remarked in line with the new guidance, causing chaos for 450,000 more pupils.
It also created further devastation for A Level students who, having now been awarded their expected grades, found that the university place that was rightfully there’s had been filled. Left with a choice between a less prestigious institution or a deferral – meaning they will instead start university next September – the knock-on effect could be felt by students for years to come.
And to cap it all off? This week reports emerged that Williamson and Ofqual, the government’s exams regulator, were warned of the problems by the OCR exam board two weeks before A Level results day. So who is Williamson? How did he find himself in charge of the UK school system at one of its most critical moments? And how is he still standing after screwing it up so spectacularly?
Born in Scarborough in 1976 to a Labour-supporting civil servant father and mother who worked in a job centre, Williamson did not take the traditional Eton-Oxford-MP route to Tory political power, instead studying Social Sciences at the University of Bradford. However, despite early jobs at, among other businesses, a fireplace manufacturer and a pottery firm, Williamson’s political ambitions were evident early on.
Heavily involved in Tory student politics throughout university, he was elected county councillor for North Yorkshire in 2001 before launching a failed bid to become MP for Blackpool North and Fleetwood in 2005. Undeterred, in 2010 he finally made it to the Palace of Westminster as MP for South Staffordshire.
Quickly finding favour with the then incumbent prime minister, David Cameron, Williamson served as private secretary to a number of MPs before landing himself a position under the big man in 2013. It wasn’t to last, of course, but when Cameron resigned after losing the Brexit vote in 2016, Williamson not only picked himself up a CBE but saw the event as an opportunity. In the words of fellow Tory MP James Wharton, Williamson “literally [walked] out with one prime minister and in with the next”, backing Theresa May behind the scenes and being handsomely rewarded with a job as chief whip.
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