UK coronavirus live: Gavin Williamson criticised over exam results U-turn

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Williamson has already been on Sky News, with the first question:..... by email.

Williamson has already been on Sky News, with the first question: how did you so badly mislead the prime minister? He says that the government consulted “extensively and widely” and suggests there was a “broad political consensus” backing his decision. He points to a similar approach being taken in Scotland and Wales.

Asked when he first became aware of problems with the algorithm, he says it became apparent “when results were coming out” and then became clearer over the weekend. Sky’s Niall Paterson points to evidence given to a select committee in July that there were likely to be problems and says “the idea that this problem has somehow come up and bitten you in the backside is nonsense”.

Williamson replies that “at every stage DfE and Ofqual have put the interests of the most disadvantaged young people at the heart of what it does.” He says there was confidence that the system was more robust than that which prompted an earlier u-turn in Scotland.

He also notes that the government has lifted the student number cap to give universities extra capacity and points out that a larger number of students have got places at their first choice university than last year.

Paterson points out that last week Williamson offered a “cast-iron guarantee” that there would be no u-turn, and he again seeks to broaden responsibility for the crisis. “We had every confidence and reassurance that there was a system that was both robust and fair, something that had broad support right across the political spectrum,” he says. “But when it became clear that there were anomalies that weren’t going to be able to be dealt with by an appeals system... we had to take further action. The issue for me has got to always be about fairness. Every reassurance that we had had was that this was a system that delivered the maximum amount of fairness.”

He says “right across the political spectrum” for at least the third time. Paterson says “I’m just asking why you haven’t done the honourable thing and resigned”, and Williamson answers about standardisation systems and says that the actions we took made a real difference in protecting the most disadvantaged children. “As I said yesterday I’m incredibly sorry for the fact that this has caused distress... but it was still the right thing to do to make the changes that we made yesterday,” he says. “I’m very sorry for the people it’s affected.” And that’s it. Just BBC Breakfast and the Today programme to go!

Good morning, and welcome to the UK coronavirus live blog for Tuesday August 18.

If you feel like crawling back underneath the covers, consider this: at least you’re not Gavin Williamson. The education secretary has a tough broadcast round first thing having woken up to a slew of front pages covering his decision to reverse the government’s position on exam grades, and if he had any hope that his u-turn would draw a line under the affair, that has presumably been dispelled.

The Guardian’s full-width story describes the decision as “humiliating” and notes that Williamson has sought to pin the blame for the fiasco on exams watchdog Ofqual, saying that he had only become aware of the scale of the problems with the algorithm “over the Saturday and Sunday”.

The Guardian’s front page for Tuesday 18 August.
The Guardian’s front page for Tuesday 18 August. Photograph: Guardian

The Times focuses on the “scramble for university places”. It also features a sketch on the political class’s “world-beating ineptitude” and reports that Conservative MPs suggested that Williamson should resign.

The Daily Mail isn’t particularly comfortable reading for Boris Johnson, either, featuring the two politicians as Laurel and Hardy along with the headline “ANOTHER FINE MESS”.

The Daily Telegraph also notes Williamson’s attempt to shift the blame to Ofqual and trails a column by former minister William Hague warning that this could be a “poll tax moment for the Conservatives”.

“This is no way to run a country”, declares the Daily Mirror, quoting Labour leader Keir Starmer.

The Sun front page features unhappy words like ‘anger’, ‘balls-up’, and ‘dunces’ and concludes in the headline “F=FARCE”.

The Sun front page for Tuesday August 18.
The Sun front page for Tuesday August 18. Photograph: Archie Bland

The FT, Express, i, and web-only Independent also focus on the exams story. And the Daily Star takes a robust view of Williamson’s job prospects, with a picture of him in a giant red nose, a sugestion that he couldn’t “organise a booze up in a brewery”, and the headline: “SACK THE CLOWN”.

All in all, then, it’s a difficult morning for the former chief whip. More on the aftermath of the exams u-turn, and much else besides, on your super soaraway liveblog today. I’m here for the early shift and you can reach me on Twitter or by email.