Reflections on exam results and our Minister

I have a confession to make. I think that Kirsty Williams is bloody brilliant.

As if it wasn’t enough being the sole Welsh Liberal Democrat elected to the Welsh Parliament and the most senior non-Labour politician in Wales, then there was COVID.

The pandemic demanded an incredible amount from our schools and the wider education system. More or less overnight, schools became childcare hubs for keyworkers with teachers delivering blended learning, undertaking wellbeing checks, providing packed-lunches and so much more.

Oh, and in Wales they were busy preparing for the first ever made-in-Wales curriculum, the biggest piece of education legislation – possibly the biggest pieces of legislation ever put before the Senedd. Led by our own Kirsty Williams.

Then came the results period.

Despite the narrative – including from our own party – decisions relating to this years’ results period aren’t neutral. The decision to award teacher-assessed grades will have implications for other parts of the education system and for learners in the future. These decisions have to be balanced, considered, and weighed up against all possible outcomes. Balancing those is difficult and those painting it as an easy, no strings-attached decision are playing games. It’s neither fair for pupils, parents, or our teachers.

Kirsty has done what people say they want politicians to do. To listen, to reflect, to balance arguments and, where necessary, change direction. That takes courage, especially when the stakes are so high for so many.

This decision will require intervention from politicians in future to ensure equitable outcomes for those cohorts. So, two things need to change. We can’t pick and choose so freely when we like and don’t like political intervention in education and the “U-turn” narrative must change. The future of our democracy relies on better debate and discussion than this.

A little-reported part of Kirsty’s statement included a commitment to an independent review of the process since exams were cancelled. That’s the transparent and accountable leadership that people should be able to expect from politicians. Kirsty should be commended for taking that step and committing herself to that process.

Soundbites are great for nudging the dial, but everyone in a position of power should take note. This is how you lead by example, how you deliver lasting improvements which command trust and support, and how you collectively learn from experience.

The response to Kirsty’s leadership yesterday, throughout COVID, and since her appointment as Minister for Education in 2016 has been overwhelmingly positive. Having spoken to many in the last few days and this morning, I know how well-respected Kirsty is by parents and practitioners across Wales. Today’s decision on awarding grades just shows whose side Kirsty and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are on and what it means to have a Lib Dem at the cabinet table.

Kirsty does an incredible job and does so with so much warmth and compassion.

I am absolutely in awe of Kirsty and I’m proud of everything she has done and is doing on behalf of the Welsh Liberal Democrats in government to co-create an education system that is a source of pride for us all and show what it means to elect Liberal Democrats.

Kirsty, diolch.

* Rhys Taylor is leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cardiff Council.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Evershed 18th Aug '20 - 1:11pm

    Is there an elephant in the room that’s not been spotted?

  • That’s all fine, and I don’t disagree.

    But it is rank hypocrisy if you then turn around and criticise Williamson for his handling of the same issues in England ,which the party has- especially as it seems fairly clear Wiliiams only moved because she knew England was about to (and alludes to that in her statement).

  • George Thomas 18th Aug '20 - 2:49pm

    I am very pleased to see Kirsty Williams get support today on this site. The wider analysis will say that each main party and each country in UK made the same mistakes over A level grades but, while there is some due criticism to take mainly about timings of decisions, the process in Wales was more robust and more fair than in other nations with the correct final decision also.

    Not every step as been easy since the start of the year, some schools being open for four weeks before breaking up and others only three highlights this, but I have been impressed that, as much as possible, each move has been carefully thought out and different practitioners have been included in the decision making process, and all while Kirsty has arguably had second highest profile job in Wales (curriculum reforms, two Senedd petitions reaching record signatures, needs of schools and students).

  • richard underhill. 18th Aug '20 - 6:08pm

    Rhys Taylor | Tue 18th August 2020 – 11:26 am
    In the days when conference delegates were elected we considered creating a deputy leader. I wanted Kirsty Williams. Glad she is doing well and hope relationships with newer Labour can strengthen in England and Scotland.
    The current leadership election will probably decide the issue. but I have cast my vote and somehow strategy, the US general election and the attempt to democratise Belarus all seem more important and more urgent.
    We should remember that the hardliners coup against President Gorbachev failed as he was released from his status as a victim of kidnapping and Moscow’s White House was blackened by artillery fire. The Russian Federation was starting to look like a democracy, as Russian voters said to Boris Yeltsin “Did you really push a wheelbarrow full of liquid cement at 30 feet up? Yes he did, but the challenge was more difficult than that, free and fair elections meant removing from the Duma communists who had not been elected democratically.
    Three leaders agreed on the future of the former Soviet Union, Yeltsin was one for Russia, another was for Belarus and, if I remember correctly, Ukraine was the third.
    Yeltsin chose a Prime Minister and Deputy President who was approved by the Duma, which liked his KGB background and accepted his advance to the Russian Presidency, which he still holds. After the death of Stalin Khrushchev had been allowed to live, as “a pensioner”
    which makes the comment from the current dictator of Belarus that “you will have to kill me” seem rather old-fashioned. This is what free and fair elections are about.
    Unfortunately counting the votes in the USA does not deliver the result as federalism and the US Supreme Court decide who will be President. Surely further reform is needed? The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment to their constitution was a sad event which Obama-Biden did not correct, although the Vietnam was was over.

  • David Evans 18th Aug '20 - 6:08pm

    Ryan, You are badly mistaken. Kirsty was the only Adult in the room of all four countries when responding to the grades crisis. Firstly, she came up with the only academically justifiable compromise when she proposed using AS Level results to moderate the huge grade inflation that adopting unmoderated teachers’ assessments implied – and that was because as a good liberal she understood the importance of *balance* between grades awarded to this years students and the grades awarded to students in the past and in the future.

    And remember that was after Nicola Sturgeon caved in to her populist instincts in an effort to hide the failures of her party’s Scottish education policies by bribing Scottish Students with a massive piece of grade inflation – apparently something of the order of a 15% increase!

    However, once it became clear that the DUP in Northern Ireland and the Conservatives in England were caving in as well, it was clear that the biggest and most damaging injustice would now be to Welsh students in 2020, and as such she took once again the fairest decision, that Wales would follow suit.

    I, and a great many fair minded people, applaud her!

  • richard underhill. 18th Aug '20 - 6:16pm

    18th Aug ’20 – 6:08pm
    One country two systems was also agreed for Macao and refused by Taiwan.
    Future UK governments should honour the promises made by the FCO and probably go further.
    Those who saw a James Bond film in which war with
    China was arranged in order to sell newspapers, somehow seemed unlikely, but the risks should be understood, including the risks of biological weapons.

  • Ryan – you are wrong to say that the issues are the same for Wales and England. In Wales (unlike England), students still take AS levels, which provided externally and individually assessed information on the likely performance of pupils at A level. That was what Kirsty Williams initially proposed to use, while Gavin Williamson was still dithering.
    Once Gavin Williamson finally reached the inevitable decision for England, the method that had already been proposed for Wales (but was not possible for England) would have put Welsh pupils at a disadvantage to their English counterparts. Kirsty then did the liberal thing and aligned the Welsh approach with England, so that Welsh students would not be disadvantaged.

  • Peter Watson 19th Aug '20 - 10:55am

    @David Evans @Simon Pike
    Unfortunately though, it still makes it difficult for Lib Dems to praise Kirsty Williams while at the same time demanding Gavin Williamson should go: both had overseen a similar process of moderation, and Williamson abandoning it in favour of teacher assessments in England was precisely what Lib Dems in England called for.
    Also, the changes to AS-levels (and there might be similar arguments about the structure of GCSEs this week) in England but not Wales came out of the Tory and Lib Dem Coalition: Michael Gove might have been the organ grinder, but Nick Clegg and David Laws were dancing along.

  • George Thomas 19th Aug '20 - 1:08pm

    @Peter Watson, I agree it is difficult to defend/support Kirsty Williams while calling for Gavin Williamson to go – the distress caused around the UK has been the same and distress is now passed onto Universities, potentially BTEC students and students in year 12 so not over yet – but for me it is the correct thing to do. We know teachers grades were unable to be an accurate reflection of student’s true abilities and that using this only is a flawed system that would create issues for future students so something had to be done.

    Though the Welsh algorithm seem more fair, it now seems obvious that each computer algorithm was always going to create winners and losers in an unfair way and a decision would need to be made on creating a fair back-up and allowing for an appeals process. In Wales, the back-up was as fair as possible and appeals were immediately made free rather than this being u-turned as well and this is not the case in England. Where criticism is due is that creating a fair back-up was such a late process, some are complaining that AS results were not sent to Uni’s so places were lost anyway and that the appeals process is still in working progress so had no chance of being active when was needed. Scotland did not get it right but handled the PR best, Wales made best effort of it overall and England failed in the decision making and how this was communicated to students – why it’s okay to signal for Gavin Williamson to go and support Kirsty Williams at the same time.

  • Peter Watson 19th Aug '20 - 2:46pm

    @Martin “You clearly do not understand the situation. … The processes of ‘moderation’ were not at all similar.”
    Clearly? Exactly what differences do you have in mind about the moderation processes in Wales and England before any of this week’s manoeuvring?

    Both countries appeared to be moderating this year’s results to fit those of recent years. The unfairness in England and Scotland seemed to arise because small class sizes / exam entry numbers were not moderated (or not as much) down from teacher predictions; was that not the case in Wales? In Wales, it looks like the AS-level grade safety net was the first U-turn rather than part of the original moderation process.

    The original process of moderation in Wales resulted in 42% of grades being less than teacher assessments (53.5% – no change, 36.7% – dropped one grade, 5.1% – dropped two grades, 0.5% – dropped three grades).
    In England 39% of grades were lower than teacher predictions (58.7% – no change, 35.6% – dropped one grade, 3.3% – dropped two grades, 0.2% – dropped three grades).
    If anything, the original moderation process in England looks very slightly better than that in Wales.

  • Peter Watson 19th Aug '20 - 3:12pm

    @George Thomas “We know teachers grades were unable to be an accurate reflection of student’s true abilities …”
    I don’t entirely agree with this part of your statement. In many ways, teacher predictions are the only “accurate reflection of a student’s true abilities” and their potential exam grades if based on a rigorous and honest appraisal (possibly a big if!).
    A process of moderation and normalisation might be able to predict accurately the proportion of a population of students who would under-perform on the day of an exam, but not which students and which exam, and that spreading of bad luck is, for me, the biggest unfairness in this year’s moderation processes (made so much worse by it being applied differently in certain situations). Joe Otten summed it up well elsewhere with “the only fairness that matters is fairness to individuals”.
    However, I do wonder where we’d be if teachers had been told in March that their grades would be used. I don’t think this could be done again, so a robust process needs to be established just in case we find ourselves in a similar situation. I suspect it will involve teachers being required to submit predictions every year so their accuracy can be monitored and improved, but I don’t think that any process can account for the sheer randomness of a good day or a bad day for an individual sitting an exam.

  • Richard O'Neill 19th Aug '20 - 8:34pm

    I just feel there are going to be winners and losers whichever way this has been handled. Sometimes these atavistic arguments about who has got it right are beside the point.

  • Peter Watson 20th Aug '20 - 12:41am

    @Martin “The difference is the AS data …”
    But is that enough of a factor for Lib Dems to simultaneously laud Kirsty Williams and condemn Gavin Williamson, especially since Lib Dems in Coalition helped implement the changes to AS levels in England (with David Laws defending the changes with evidence that GCSEs were as good a predictor of degree success as AS-levels)?
    If Williamson’s scalp is successfully taken then there will be pressure on other Education Ministers and it could be difficult for Lib Dems to defend Williams having been pushing for Williamson to go. I don’t know the political situation in Wales but as well as traditional opponents in Opposition, conceivably the Labour government might find a Lib Dem scapegoat attractive; Williams seems to be very well-regarded and would presumably be a great loss.

  • George Thomas 20th Aug '20 - 11:34am

    @Peter Watson, while I may have been too lauding in my first post in this thread I have also pointed out where I think mistakes were made and distress has been felt equally around the UK. Lib Dems should be willing to take flak for the coalition if they i) did not take sufficient action to oppose moves made and ii) criticism is due for outcomes/process of moves made. While there seem to be a number who have suggested moving away from AS system was wrong at the time, it now seems more likely that it was an error for David Laws(?) to support Goves/Cumming’s plan and avoiding saying things have gone better (not without mistakes) with Lib Dem as education lead because of fearing flak for historical mistakes seems wrong way to go.

  • David Evans 20th Aug '20 - 9:17pm

    @Peter Watson – Do you not understand that Kirsty immediately made a good decision based on a clear understanding of what was going on and chose to use the best data possible, while Gavin Williamson (who clearly hadn’t found out what the consequences of the algorithm were) dithered, prevaricated and ultimately collapsed under the pressure of his own failure to understand the detail?

    You may have difficulty seeing the difference, but to us it is clear. Perhaps that is because you see things in the same rigid unbending way that Mr Williamson did, while we, like Kirsty, see it for what it is, a problem that needs understanding and judgement applying to it, because there is no perfect solution, but it is important that any solution is as fair as possible and that can change as other factors change.

  • Peter Watson 21st Aug '20 - 10:37am

    @Martin “Significantly you offer no grounds for criticising Kirsty Williams”
    I don’t want to criticise Kirsty Williams, just to clarify exactly what is the difference between sackable and laudable (not least because Lib Dem fury with Gavin Williamson could have unfortunate consequences for Kirsty Williams).
    You write, “Williamson … was responsible for setting constraints that together with a lack of reliable data made arbitrary and systematically discriminatory grading inevitable” However, the statistics quoted above and the fact that in Wales, 48.1% of pupils on free school meals saw their A-levels downgraded compared to 45.3% for pupils not eligible, suggest that both ministers were responsible for similar systems with algorithms that were similarly flawed and unfair, probably driven by a desire to avoid over-inflation of grades, and both seemed surprised by the consequences. Williamson is not responsible for the lack of AS results in England nor is Williams responsible for them being available in Wales, but it is not apparent that they made a huge difference to the original A-level grade normalisation and they are irrelevant to the grading of GCSEs anyway.
    I think George Thomas and David Evans are right to highlight what is probably the biggest difference between Williams and Williamson, how they’ve responded to the situation in the last couple of weeks, whereas I’ve only been thinking about the mess that they both found themselves in (with the situation looking the same in Scotland). Williams has been much more open and apologetic in that time, which is good to see in a politician.

  • Peter Watson 21st Aug '20 - 2:48pm

    @Martin “What really discredited the mechanism in England was the extent of the downgrades and where these extensive downgrades occurred.”
    Though the statistics I quoted above suggest the situation was no better in Wales: if anything the extent of downgrading with regards to teacher assessments – which would also include knowledge of a student’s AS performance – was marginally more severe. If Lib Dems must call for Williamson’s head, then it is probably better to avoid the whole “fiasco” in general terms and concentrate solely on what he knew about possible unfairness built into the the moderation system and when he knew it.

    On reflection, I’m probably influenced/biased by two things in this discussion.

    Firstly, I absolutely detest the gladiatorial, head-hunting, oppositionist nature of British politics. The media focuses on and sensationalises the negative aspects of any situation, even when it is a reversal of a previous position, and at any given time, half of the political establishment is actively attacking and celebrating any shortcomings and failures of whoever is in charge at the time (often without consistency or a clear alternative). It makes following current affairs an overwhelmingly dismal and negative experience; little wonder that people often prefer social media echo chambers. I hold out a hope that we will get electoral reform and a more co-operative form of government: Kirsty Williams is a great example of what that could be like (after all, Lib Dems here are effectively defending at least this aspect of a Labour government in Wales), the 2010 Coalition not so much.

    Secondly, I really like the idea of an education minister or party spokesperson who went to the same sort of comprehensive state school as most of us and our children. A regional accent and a non-Oxbridge background are also refreshing. The same prejudice is probably why I had such high hopes for Tim Farron’s leadership of the Lib Dems and was so disappointed by how it went.

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