Whereas school exams went ahead in other countries, including Germany, the UK Government announced on 18 March that the GCSE and A-Level examinations originally due to take place in May and June would be cancelled. In our recent polling in Great Britain, Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that a plurality (41%) of the public agree with the Government’s decision to cancel examinations rather than delay them, whereas slightly under a third (32%) think the Government did not make the right decision.
Notably, a plurality (41%) of 2019 Labour voters believe the Government made the right decision in cancelling exams, a view in which they’re joined by a plurality (46%) of 2019 Conservative voters who support the Government’s decision. Parents of school age children are also likely to believe the Government made the right choice, with 46% holding this view. Those who do not have children are slightly less in favour: only 39% think the Government made the right choice.
In addition to cancelling exams, the UK Government recently made a high profile ‘U Turn’ and decided to assign students the grades predicted by their teachers, rather than use a controversial algorithm based system. A strong majority (65%) of respondents support the Government’s decision to make this ‘U-Turn’, while just 13% oppose.
Among parents with school-aged children, an overwhelming majority (71%) approve of the Government’s eventual decision to allow pupils to receive their predicted grades rather than those assigned to them by the algorithm. The Government’s policy shift is also supported by a strong majority of both Conservative (63%) and Labour (68%) supporters.
Around 2.5% of all grades which were calculated via the original algorithm were higher than the students’ predicted grades. A strong plurality (47%) of respondents approve of the Government’s recent announcement that students can choose to keep Ofqual’s adjusted grades in these instances. Less than a fifth (18%) of the public disapprove of this policy and 28% neither approve nor disapprove. A clear majority (57%) of parents of school-aged children also approve.
The Government’s overall handling of this year’s GCSE and A-Level grading process has been widely criticised. In particular, the algorithm utilised to calculate the grades was condemned for disadvantaging students from low-income backgrounds. While the Government’s eventual U-Turn is supported by the public, it has also caused a significant degree of disruption in the higher-education sector, given that some students were initially rejected from universities on the basis of grades that have since been upgraded.
As such, a clear majority (54%) of the British public disapprove of the Government’s overall handling of the grading process this year, while only 17% approve. A quarter (25%) neither approve nor disapprove, which may highlight that some respondents think the Government’s record is mixed, or that they have not followed the news closely because they might not be relevant to them. Notably, a clear plurality (45%) of 2019 Conservative voters disapprove of the Government’s handling, while only a fifth (20%) approve, indicating that the Government is viewed as having acted incorrectly even by its own voters.
Interestingly, a third (33%) of respondents with school aged children approve of the Government’s handling of this year’s grading process, which is a larger proportion than among the overall sample.
The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has sought to deflect attention from his actions during the controversy by apologising and blaming the exam regulator Ofqual, which created the algorithm. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also come under increased scrutiny, particularly for his decision not to interrupt his holiday to deal with the controversy. At this stage, a plurality (38%) of respondents consider that Williamson is most to blame for the controversy surrounding exam grades, while 16% thinks the Head of Ofqual, Sally Collier, is the main culprit, and a further 16% think the Prime Minister is primarily at fault. In the aftermath of the controversy, Collier has tendered her resignation.
A clear plurality of both 2019 Labour voters (42%) and Conservative voters (38%) think that Williamson is primarily to blame for the grading controversy. However, only 7% of Conservatives say the Prime Minister is most at fault, while 24% believe that Collier should be blamed. In contrast, a quarter (25%) of 2019 Labour supporters think the Prime Minister is most to blame, while 8% think Sally Collier is.
Among those with school-aged children, 36% consider Williamson most to blame, a further 23% say Johnson is primarily at fault, and 13% hold the view that Collier is.
Whereas Collier has resigned, Williamson has not. We found that a strong plurality (47%) of the public think that Williamson should resign from his role as Education Secretary as a results of the exams situation.
Pluralities or majorities of respondents from every age group and UK region agreed that Williamson should stand down. Conservative voters are sharply divided: 38% do not think he should resign, yet 37% do (a difference that is within the margin of error). Meanwhile, a clear majority (60%) of Labour voters believe Williamson should resign from his role. A majority (52%) of parents with school aged children also think Williamson should leave his job
At this stage, it seems likely that Williamson will remain in office, especially as the Department of Education prepares earnestly to welcome all children back to school in September. Moreover, Downing Street continues to maintain that the Prime Minister has full confidence in Williamson. Throughout his first thirteen months in office, Johnson has shown a willingness to stand by members of his team, regardless of media pressure. Nevertheless, a plurality (36%) think that Johnson’s continued support for Gavin Williamson underlines the weakness of his leadership. Around a fifth (22%) consider that Johnson’s loyalty to his ministerial team highlights strong leadership, while 24% believe his decision shows neither weak nor strong leadership.
Ultimately, although the public disapprove of the Government’s overall handling of this year’s exam grading system, pluralities of respondents also support the solutions the Government eventually settled on. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is considered to be primarily at fault by a plurality of respondents, and almost half think he should resign from his role. However, it may be the case that Prime Minister Johnson does not want to reshuffle his Cabinet at this stage. Indeed, Williamson’s future in the role as Education Secretary may rest on all children successfully returning to school next week.