What will it take for a minister to resign on principle?

TL:DR – I don’t know why the Education Secretary is still in office either.

I’ve lost count of the number of high profile voices going after the Education Secretary and the Prime Minister over the shambles of the A Level Results for 2020.

With Parliament still in recess, no one can pin down the PM on this – not least because he has chosen to stay away on holiday.

The classic “When are you going to resign, minister?” question that needs to be put relentlessly to the Education Secretary until he is gone.

I also had an interesting exchange with the economist Frances Coppola, who I first met on Twitter nearly a decade ago! How time flies.

While I expect a senior figure from OfQual to resign eventually, several have commented that the Education Secretary is trying to put all of the blame on OfQual to save his own political skin. And people are seeing through it.

At a local level the Liberal Democrat MP-candidate for South Cambridgeshire has pulled up the MP for South Cambridgeshire over his statements on this.

This was covered in more detail by Paul Brackley of the Cambridge Independent. Inside Cambridge City, Daniel Zeichner MP for Labour was one of the first to make a statement damning the conduct of ministers over this.

Mr Zeichner was also interviewed by the Cambridge Independent – by Alex Spencer.

Legal action against the Education Secretary.

The Mayor for Greater Manchester, former Health Secretary Andy Burnham has instructed counsel to start legal proceedings against the Secretary of State over the results fiasco.

Note that action is ongoing despite the U-turn over A-levels as the statement by the Education Secretary did not mention anything about BTEC students (on vocational qualifications taken predominantly more by working class students but also in areas essential not just for the economy but society as well, such as nursing and healthcare).

Jon Baines of Mishcon De Reya wrote this interesting piece on the data protection issues around this case, and the grounds that students might have to take legal action. What’s interesting is the inconsistencies picked up by Mr Baines in statements made both by OfQual and also the Information Commissioner’s Office. I’m surprised that these were not picked up by the legal teams inside OfQual and the ICO – assuming they were able to clear the statements, something I would have taken as a given due to the numbers of young people involved as well as the political sensitivities.

The Good Law Project

The Good Law Project led by Jo Maugham QC, is a not for profit organisation that also threatened legal action against the Education Secretary over the A-level results.

The Project managed to raise over £75,000 to fund the legal action to instruct a team led by Fiona Golding QC to lead their action, volunteering to be paid far below market rates to enable the action to proceed.

It wasn’t just the threats of legal action but also the high likelihood of those bringing the action winning their cases against OfQual and the Education Secretary that resulted in the policy change – or the tyre-screeching U-turn that has been in the news all evening.

It wasn’t just the legal action that won it – and the mess is not over by a long way.

This thread by Pete Moorey lists just some of the various actions taken by so many different people that forced the climbdown from a position where the Prime Minister was unequivocal.

Above – the Prime Minister on 13 August 2020, five days before the Education Secretary announced a reversal of the policy.

What now for the universities?

This is the big unknown – and many of these institutions now have to deal with either an unexpected excess of students compared to those they had planned for, or a shortfall. Either way, it will have financial implications separate to trying to adapt their premises for a new term under the restrictions as a result of the Corona Virus pandemic that has started getting worse again. Even here in Cambridge.

For some there might be a way to defer some of the places awarded to the following year. For others there may be some negotiation for some students to take up/stick with insurance offers rather than going for otherwise full-up courses in their first choice institutions. But that has its own problems because the original model produced results that favoured private schools ahead of state schools – with the possible impact of the more prestigious institutions having a disproportionately affluent intake compared to other years. This was one of the reasons Oxford and Cambridge in particular were very heavily lobbied by their former students in particular to take steps to prevent this. This is why – and to their credit, Worcester College, Oxford was the first to go public and confirm the places of all students they had given offers to.

Their view was that having invested so much in the application and interviewing process, those offered places were deemed as having enough potential to succeed at the college – noting that knowledge of the pandemic had already been taken into consideration. At least one other college at Oxford followed suit prior to the announcement by the Education Secretary earlier on. The actions by the colleges also sent a message to the Education Secretary that they did not view the processes he had signed off as being credible enough to make a judgement on whether to accept or reject applicants with conditional offers, so took matters into their own hands.

Longer term impacts

The GCSEs are coming up in the next few days – younger students all minors, in far greater numbers covering a far, far greater spectrum. There is huge pressure on ministers not to mess this one up – so much so that one prominent former Education Secretary, Ken Baker said the release of the GCSE results should be postponed.

Baker was the Education Secretary that brought in GCSEs.

It was sobering just listening to the A-level students speaking so eloquently in the media over the past few days about what they were going through and what they were feeling. One theme that came through was the sense of a collective injustice – even from those that had benefited. Because this will inevitably cause disruption for when they finally go to university, the problems will not have ended. This will run.

Then there’s the impact on the families of students. This isn’t a case of burdening young people with fees debt to be paid off at some point in the future. This was being told “You can’t go!” because of something completely outside of their control, while seeing someone from a more affluent neighbourhood or a fee paying school being given a pass. In particular those students given ‘U’ grades – what you’d get given for not actually showing up even though they were banned by law from turning up to take the exams, was particularly enraging.

Finally, the politicians responsible were forced onto the back foot. Interestingly there were no serious attempts by any of the political parties to try and monopolise or capitalise on the Government’s problems with students and young people by proclaiming this as a retreat in the face of a movement led by their political party. In fact on BBC Newsnight on 17 August, Kirsty Wark asked some of the opposition politicians why they had not been more prominent. The lack of a representative to even try and defend the Government – whether a former minister, backbench MP, representative of a sympathetic lobbying group, was striking.

There’s only so long Johnson and his ministers can hide away from scrutiny by the media and Parliament.

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