Kirsty Williams, the one competent education secretary in the UK

It’s been a hell of a couple of weeks for exam students. Highers and A level results play a huge role in determining the course of your life. If you don’t get the grades you need to fulfil your aspirations, you have to rethink your whole life. And you will carry those grades around for your whole life.

The question of whether we should have a system that puts so much stress on our young people is up for debate, but that’s for another day.

We know, though, that there are clear differences between the nations of the UK. In Scotland and England, the whole thing has been a disaster. However, in Wales, our Kirsty Williams has presided over a system that she argues has credibility because it guarantees that AS level results from last year will be the minimum grade for this year. That is a system that was scrapped by one Michael Gove in England.

Watch her statement about the way the results have been calculated:

Watch this interview she gave ahead of the announcement of the grades:

Listen to Kirsty talk to Andrew Castle on LBC here. 

Because we have maintained a system whereby AS-levels forms a significant proportion of a final A-level grade, we were able to us that in the moderation process and able to put in a safety net for students so they could not drop below their previous AS Level grade.

“The ability to do that has been very helpful, because those were exams which were set, taken in the same conditions and were externally assessed.

“That can give students, universities and employers real confidence in them”.

She also cast doubt on the validity of giving grades based on mock exams,

“Some schools don’t do mock examinations,” Ms Williams explained.

“Some use mock examinations as a way to boost confidence and deliver them in a way that perhaps they are there to encourage people.

“Other schools use them as a tool of encouragement in the other way, they will mark them really hard so that people don’t get complacent.

“Each school has a different approach which we believe is right for them.”

The Welsh Lib Dems had some clear messaging about results:

And journalists are recognising that in Wales things are better than in the rest of the UK. Stephen Bush said in the I

It is able to criticise both Swinney and Williamson, because in Wales, where Labour is coalition with the Liberal Democrats, students and parents are not angrily telling television cameras that they want the education minister – in this case, the Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams – to resign or to fix the problem. Quite the reverse: yesterday morning, a group of children actually thanked Williams live on air. What has the Welsh Government done differently?

. Following the cancellation of exams, the underestimated have been given no opportunity to correct the record and some children, correctly estimated, will have their grades downgraded from what they would have got in normal times. Others will get better grades than they otherwise would. But in Wales, the situation “feels” fairer because students are being marked not only on their teachers’ assessments and the performance of their school in the past, but with their GCSE coursework and AS-Level grades being taken into account.

Williams has gone so far as to say that these performances will act as a backstop, with no child left with a worse grade at A-level than at AS-level. Welsh children have been given the opportunity to at least partially shape their own destinies and write their own futures.

Kirsty has shown that she can be calm in a crisis and make the right calls in a rapidly changing situation. That is what a competent and fair minded minister does.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.



  • richard underhill. 15th Aug '20 - 11:37am

    a system that was scrapped by one Michael Gove in England.
    Today is VJ Day and Boris is attending a ceremony with Prince Charles.
    Prince Charles is able to say what his father did in the war and what Lord Mountbatten told him happened in East Asia.
    Boris is of a generation, with Helmut Kohl, who did not have combat experience, unlike Harold MacMillan and James Callaghan.
    Try to imagine one of his children saying “What did you do in the War? Daddy”
    to which an honest answer could be “I wrote a book about Winston Churchill”
    Then another of his progeny could ask “Is it an accurate historical text book?”
    So what could he honestly answer?
    I have not read that book, although I have sold on E-bay another book he wrote, of which I repeat that “it should be thrown with great force.”

  • Well done Kirsty Williams-its good to see a stand being taken by someone in our party.

  • richard underhill. 15th Aug '20 - 11:46am

    The oldest veteran at the event is 100.
    Prince Charles has a habit of reaching out to touch people and needs to withdraw his arm when he realises that is discouraged because of the virus.
    He said nothing about the murder of Lord Mountbatten during a fishing trip.

  • Three questions….

    1. Is the fact that Kirsty Williams is the only Lib Dem member of a Labour Cabinet of any significance ?

    2. Where was David Laws when Gove/Cummings were running education ?

    3. Can we thus take it that working with Labour can be more productive than working with Tories ?


    Is this a Lib Dem version of the Trumpian defence of the Second Amendment on bearing arms ?

  • John Marriott 15th Aug '20 - 12:26pm

    I just wish that ALL politicians stopped using education as a political football. They messed up back in the 1970s when they handed over the implementation of the conversion from the tripartite to the comprehensive system of secondary education to the educational establishment and were then forced to wrench it back in the 1980s.

    It’s about time that somebody stopped assuming that grades can continue to rise and it’s time for a little realism to enter our lives. That said, it’s clear that a Covid-19 has sent a curve ball towards established practice and not just the politicians have been found wanting this time.

    I might sound as if I belong in Jurassic Park; but isn’t it time that we stopped treating ‘education’ aka the acquisition of grades, as a commodity to be picked up like a packet of peas at the supermarket, and I include ‘going to uni’ here as well (although after the prerequisite ‘gap year’ of course)?

    Algorithms, logarithms, whatever ‘rithms’ you like cannot disguise the fact that our treatment of education in the past half a century or so is one chicken that is certainly coming home to roost and, in a bizarre way, we have COVID-19 to thank for drawing this educational foutoir’ to our attention.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Aug '20 - 3:02pm

    Martin, I’m sure David’s OK. It’s just that he can’t cope with Wales doing rather better than Scotland over this.

  • John Marriott 15th Aug '20 - 3:52pm

    Wales v Scotland, Wales and Scotland v England? I just wonder where NI will fit. Come on, folks, it should NOT be a competition. We are not making motor cars, after all, we are ‘making’ people.

    We all messed up. In fact, when it comes to education, we’ve been messing up for decades – a mix ability free for all in the 1970s, a new exam system in the 1980s with a built in dumming down, an overly proscriptive National Curriculum, the bypassing, undermining and emasculation of LEAS, league tables, Grant Maintained morphing into Foundation Schools and now private LEAS in the form of Academy Chains with ‘Super Heads’ and, above all, the consigning of vocational education and training to an inferior afterthought.

    People may say that I am exaggerating and they may be right. On the other hand ……..

  • Laurence Cox 15th Aug '20 - 5:03pm

    Chris Dillow is that rarest of beasts, an avowed Marxist who writes for Investor’s Chronicle. Here in his blog he argues for a radical solution to the education standards problem caused by covid:

    If we are going back to norm referencing to stop grade inflation, this will do it and, as a side-effect if it is made permanent, will discourage parents from trying to get their children into the ‘best’ schools as they will get the best results by them being relatively better than their peers in the same school, rather than absolutely better overall (but worse than their peers in the same school). All the teachers need to do is to rank the children within the school in each subject.

  • Laurence Cox 15th Aug '20 - 5:18pm

    @Richard Underhill

    I do not think that comparing Boris Johnson to Helmut Kohl is a fair comparison as they are certainly not of the same generation. In Kohl’s case, his elder brother was killed in WW2 and he was drafted for military service in 1945, although the war ended before he saw action as his Wikipedia entry shows. Had Kohl been British rather than German he would have certainly been called up for National Service, something which Boris Johnson avoided as he had not even been born when it ended in 1963.

  • @ Martin Absolutely fine, Martin. Been enjoying the snooker. If you explain what your odd problem is I’ll try to help. Are you saying Michael Gove was not Secretary of State for Education between 12 May 2010 – 15 July 2014 ?

    @ Sue Nice one, Sue.

  • @ John Marriott & Sue Sutherland No Academy Chains with ‘Super Heads’ in Scotland….. though wasn’t that a Blair thing before the Tories got hold of it ?

  • Now she would be worth voting for as Leader of the National Party

  • Paul (in Wales) 15th Aug '20 - 8:28pm

    @David Raw

    “ Can we thus take it that working with Labour can be more productive than working with Tories ”

    No not at all.

    Regards, Paul

  • Scrapping modular AS exams that were sat in January and June was a major error but it was taken after the 2015 election and may be taken as another small example of how things got significantly worse when we were no longer in government.
    @john Marriott. No, you are not exaggerating. It seems like a reasonable, but by no means complete, list of the folly heaped upon our education system in recent years. Replacing examiners with algorithms (which started before the pandemic) might be considered another.

  • Peter Watson 15th Aug '20 - 9:45pm

    @Martin “All we can say is that the backward A levels were not implemented during the coalition, but whether Laws was involved in holding them back I could not say”
    I’m not entirely sure what you mean by this and some of your other comments, but it sounds a little misleading.
    David Laws was a schools minister from 2012-2015 and was involved in the reforms in England that downgraded AS-levels and returned to 2 year linear A-levels, particularly the research presented as evidence that GCSE results were as good a predictor as AS results for university applications ( Just because teaching of them started in September 2015 does not mean that Lib Dems share no blame/credit for the new system (but “backward” suggest you think it should be blame).
    Kirsty Williams seems to be getting a lot of praise for an education system that ignored many of the exam reforms that the Lib Dem and Tory Coalition government gave us in England. Blaming Gove is easy, but for better or worse, Lib Dems were part of the changes he introduced.

  • Peter Watson 15th Aug '20 - 9:50pm

    @Chris Cory “Scrapping modular AS exams that were sat in January and June was a major error but it was taken after the 2015 election and may be taken as another small example of how things got significantly worse when we were no longer in government.”

  • Peter Watson 15th Aug '20 - 9:57pm

    It was a nostalgic trip down memory lane when I found this Jan 2013 LDV discussion about the Coalition’s A-level reforms:
    In particular, it reminds me how much I miss the Lib Dem voices of Julian Critchley, Helen Tedcastle and Matthew Huntbach on this site (though thankfully, at least the latter reappears occasionally).

  • George Thomas 16th Aug '20 - 9:41am

    It’s fantastic that the work of Kirsty Williams is being recognised but, as we are talking school gradings, I’m afraid the work can only be marked as a B rather than an A grade.

    Positives from Wales: maintaining use of AS as criteria of overall grade means that a young person is not ranked purely on an intense two weeks worth of performance which does not effectively take into account wider circumstances and rarely reflects adult life – this system has protected young people in Wales in these unusual times. Also, making sure appeals system is immediately free of charge recognises that those most badly impacted by reduction in grades are those from more disadvantaged communities.

    Negatives from Wales: seemingly, the same system and same timings too so another last minute decision about a safety net. This means grades came out, 42% reduced from teacher’s estimations which is more than in England, and were sent to Universities, who started to fill up their places, so young people looking to use their AS grades were….still losing out because these hadn’t been sent to Universities as well with explanation of why they should be accepted.

    The need for a decision earlier and chance for appeals process to happen before Universities started to fill up their place wasn’t recognised and many are losing out across the UK, including in Wales, because of it. The GCSE results are more likely to cause issue and it seems we’ll have another last minute announcement about that across the board.

    Wales is almost always treated as an afterthought on a UK level (the Lib Dems rarely mention successes in Wales despite Kirsty Williams being the only Lib Dem in office, Labour usually want to forget that they are main party here and Tories only mention Wales when distorting a stat to use it as a stick to beat Labour or devolution with) and at the same time there is far too much political apathy in Wales. This should highlight a real, real problem with the current model of the United Kingdom Union and within this nation that we talk about but, as Carole Cadwalladr pointed out, no mainstream news source or journalist from has permanent base in Wales. I’m afraid it’s more likely this, the lack of attention and apathy, that has lead to lack of complaints about A levels decision than the competency of Kirsty Williams who has performed well this year in difficult circumstances.

  • George Thomas 16th Aug '20 - 10:56am

    Correction: upon reflection, I do not think it’s fair to state that there is “too much political apathy” within Wales without also mentioning that there are many, many groups and individuals who are doing really fantastic and productive work.

  • David Raw That was a clarion call to the party for us to stop hiding under a stone and start campaigning to change the countries future.
    This algorithm. I understand that the Stats office had to sign an NDA over it. That implies ,to me, the author knew it would be controversial. All efforts should be undertaken to find out who /where it came from.

  • Equally this Johnson govnt seems to worship data.The more data FROM ALL SOURCES collected can be used to influence future policy making. That can lead to political engineering to fine tune policies to maintain a 43% vote via FPTP to remain in permanent govnt An elected dictatorship by the privilaged for the privilaged. as is shown by the algorithm noting private school info versus other schools.

  • Old Caledonian 17th Aug '20 - 2:50pm

    Where Scotland leads others follow. See

  • David Evershed 17th Aug '20 - 3:06pm

    A-level and GCSE students will be awarded the grades predicted for them by their teachers, the Welsh Government has announced.

    The U-turn followed criticism from students, opposition politicians and Welsh Labour backbenchers.

    Education Minister Kirsty Williams said she took the decision to maintain confidence in the system.

    Source: BBC News

  • As expected LDV described Kirsty Williams as, “the one competent education secretary in the UK”. But, maybe Caron should have been more cautious and waited to see how events panned out before rushing in.

    Apparently things have kicked off in Wales now.

    BBC News : “The cabinet members for education at six Welsh councils say they have “no confidence” in the system which has allocated this year’s A-level results. It comes after 42% of A-level grades predicted by teachers were lowered by the exams watchdog.

    Education Minister Kirsty Williams has allowed appeals if “there is evidence” pupils should have had higher grades. But a letter, signed by senior figures at north Wales’ councils, said the system was unfair.

    These represent Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham councils. Pressure grew on the Welsh Government on Monday as a senior Welsh Labour back bencher, Vikki Howells, called for ministers to honour predicted grades”.

    @ n. hunter So your clarion call – after you’d loaded – was a misfire ?

  • richard underhill. 17th Aug '20 - 3:46pm

    Peter Weir is DUP. His predecessors were SF.
    Drawing on a wider pool of talent might be desirable.
    Working towards a non-sectarian society in schools, is desirable.

  • Peter Watson 17th Aug '20 - 3:53pm

    @David Raw “should have been more cautious and waited to see how events panned out before rushing in.”
    More importantly, perhaps Layla Moran should have waited before calling for Gavin Williamson to go.

  • @ David Evershed The lady was for turning ?

  • @ Peter Watson “Layla Moran should have waited….”

    Indeed……., but as with the Coalition, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Some choice either way. Andrew Neil and Emily Maitlis licking their lips and Paxman contemplating a recall.

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