Johnson faces backlash after blaming ‘mutant’ algorithm for grades debacle

Boris Johnson has faced a backlash after he sought to blame the A-level results fiasco on a “mutant algorithm” and effectively sacked the senior civil servant at the Department for Education (DfE).

The prime minister acknowledged the stress caused by the situation – which eventually resulted in a U-turn with A-level and GCSE grades in England awarded based on teachers’ assessments rather than the algorithm.

The DfE announced that its permanent secretary Jonathan Slater will stand down because the prime minister “has concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership”.

Boris Johnson visits Castle Rock school
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Castle Rock school, Coalville, in the East Midlands (Jack Hill/The Times/PA)

Labour accused Johnson of trying to avoid taking responsibility for a “shambles” caused by his government’s “incompetence”.

The prime minister, addressing pupils at a school in Coalville, Leicestershire, acknowledged that the situation had been “stressful” for those awaiting A-level and GCSE results.

“I’m afraid your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm,” he told them.

“I know how stressful that must have been for pupils up and down the country.

“I’m very, very glad that it has finally been sorted out.”

Johnson had previously claimed that the algorithm-based grades would be “robust” and “dependable”.

Boris Johnson visits Castle Rock school
Prime Minister Boris Johnson with year 11 pupils at Castle Rock school, Coalville (Jack Hill/The Times/PA)

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Boris Johnson is shamelessly trying to avoid taking responsibility for the exams fiasco that his government created.

“Responsibility for this shambles lies squarely with Downing Street and the Department for Education, who set out how they wanted the algorithm to work and were warned weeks in advance of issues, but repeatedly refused to address the problems they had created.

“It is this Tory government’s incompetence that is to blame for the exams fiasco.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is brazen of the prime minister to idly shrug away a disaster that his own government created.

“Parents, students, teachers and heads will be horrified to see the leader of this country treat his own exams fiasco like some minor passing fad.

“The public will not easily forget the emotional rollercoaster of this year’s results season. It is certain to put a long-lasting dent in the government’s reputation on education.”

Slater will stand down on 1 September, in advance of the end of his tenure in spring 2021. Susan Acland-Hood, currently interim second permanent secretary, will take over as acting permanent secretary.

The departure of Slater follows the resignation of Sally Collier from her role as chief regulator at Ofqual. Education secretary Gavin Williamson denied forcing her out of her post at the qualifications watchdog.

“No, this was a decision that Sally made, an incredibly dedicated and committed public servant, and in discussions with the Ofqual board, which, as you’re aware, is a non-ministerial government department,” he told BBC Breakfast.

Williamson indicated he had not considered resigning over the U-turn.

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