Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has resisted calls to resign but told Sky News he is “incredibly sorry for the distress” the A-level and GCSE results row caused to students.
He said up until results day last week he had “every confidence” the controversial algorithm used to grade pupils whose exams were cancelled due to coronavirus would not penalise disadvantaged students.
But over the weekend, when he said “it became clear there were anomalies”, the government U-turned.
“I’m incredibly sorry for the distress that it’s caused to those young people,” Mr Williamson told Kay [email protected] on Tuesday.
“But it was still the right thing to do to make the changes we made yesterday…
“At the core of it was ensuring there was fairness across the system.”
Heartbreaking stories immediately began pouring out in the aftermath of results day from students who had lost out on university places – and in the case of one student Sky News spoke to, a bursary.
England was the final UK nation to drop a system of moderated grades and instead mark pupils according to teachers’ predictions on Monday – following Scotland, Northern Ireland and then Wales.
Angry pupils protested in Westminster and outside Mr Williamson’s South Staffordshire constituency office before the U-turn, demanding his resignation.
But asked why he had not quit, the cabinet minister told Sky News actions he took made a “real difference” to ensure students were not treated unfairly.
Mr Williamson was also challenged over a report by an influential Tory MP who chairs the Commons education select committee, which found in July the marking system “could be unfair” for disadvantaged pupils and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
But the education secretary denied he missed early warnings from that report and other experts, insisting it was only “when we saw the results directly coming out” that it became clear there was a problem.
10 Downing Street has reiterated Boris Johnson, who is on holiday in Scotland, has full confidence in Mr Williamson.
But that has not quelled anger completely on the Conservative benches. with former minister George Freeman coming the closest yet to calling for Mr Williamson to go.
He said the “exam shambles” raises “worrying” questions “about leadership” at the Department for Education.
The prime minister had given his full endorsement to the algorithm last Thursday.
He said: “Let’s be in no doubt about it: The exam results we’ve got today are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers.”
Analysis: The exams debacle is far from over
By Tamara Cohen, political correspondent
After insisting there would be no U-turns, today Gavin Williamson ate humble pie in the TV studios explaining why he has now performed a huge, screeching one.
His explanation? He’s terribly sorry, but he was given assurances by regulator Ofqual that the algorithm used to determine grades was robust. And it was only on further examination this weekend that it “threw up too many anomalies”.
Plenty of Tory MPs privately – and in some cases publicly – wonder why this was obvious to plenty of others, including the education select committee, and especially clear after the fiasco in Scotland a week earlier which their party rushed to criticise.
The saga reflects poorly not just on Mr Williamson, but on the government as a whole and its “levelling up” agenda, as well as the devolved administrations.
There is no immediate expectation or clamour within the party that the education secretary will be fired or resign.
He has Number 10’s full confidence, I’m told today – and his role in securing the leadership for Boris Johnson is not forgotten.
This is not a government which likes to bow to pressure for heads to roll.
But the exams debacle is far from over – GCSE results this week, the return to school in September and handling the chaos now inflicted on universities will tell us whether he’s weathered the storm.