Collective responsibility: what does the exam fiasco change?

Whilst we hope that all students have had a smooth ride as possible in the last few weeks when collecting results and confirming university places, we know that it hasn’t been smooth for all. Gavin Williamson and the rest of the government have been under pressure as a result of the A Level and GCSE results fiasco. Has this issue shown cracks in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, and how important is collective responsibility today?

What is collective responsibility?

Collective responsibility is the principle that all members of the government agree on decisions made by the government. Ministers and Secretaries of State do not question the decisions made in public. There are many reasons for this:

  • It ensures that the government appears as a collective and strong force against any opposition from other parties and the media.
  • It ensures that decisions remain confidential and any issues can be ironed out in private.
  • It can enhance prime minsterial power by silencing critics of certain issues.

It is generally accepted that ministers who do not agree with decisions in public, in line with the principle of collective responsibility, should resign from their post immediately.

What happened with results?

There has been a lot of chopping and changing of policies, so here’s a quick timeline of what happened in regards to A Level and GCSE results this year.

  • Wednesday 18th March: Boris Johnson announces that all schools are to close for the foreseeable future to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • Friday 20th March: lessons end for all UK students.
  • May 2020: teachers submit centre assessment grades, which will then be standardised by exam boards.
  • Tuesday 4th August: results are released in Scotland, showing huge issues with the standardisation algorithm used to award grades.
  • Tuesday 11th August: the Scottish government announce that standardised results will be scrapped, and centre assessment grades will be awarded instead. Gavin Williamson announces that mock grades can be used if they are higher than standardised grades.
  • Wednesday 12th August: Nick Gibb (schools minister for England) reinforces government support for the standardisation algorithm, insisting the system is robust.
  • Thursday 13th August: A Level results are released, showing nearly 2 in 5 centre assessed grades had been altered. Many students, therefore, lose their place at firm and insurance universities. Clearing and adjustment open.
  • Saturday 15th August: Gavin Williamson (Education Secretary) says there will be no U-turn in results, despite growing public pressure.
  • Monday 17th August: Clearing and adjustment close. Later in the day, the standardisation system is scrapped and centre assessed grades are instead used to award A Level and GCSE students.

Was collective responsibility upheld?

Whilst many members of the government remained silent over the issue, cracks with collective responsibility continued to emerge since results day. Ministers refused to comment on the use of the algorithm, and the decision on Monday 17th to remove the algorithm was met with criticism as a press conference wasn’t held, and the issue did not resolve those who could no longer go to their firm or insurance universities. Whilst not strictly on the principle of collective responsibility, many Conservative MPs criticised the government’s strong stance, with Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon questioning the appeals system controversy and lack of preparation from the government.

Gavin Williamson is expected to resign in the coming days or be removed in an upcoming cabinet reshuffle. It is clear that collective responsibility was absolutely upheld in this fiasco, with ministers refusing to admit where the government had got the decisions wrong, and keeping quiet to the general public about their concerns.

Summary & exam questions

  • Was it right for the government to use collective responsibility in this case?
  • Should ministers be allowed to express their own opinions? Would this strengthen the work of the government?

AQA: ‘The use of collective responsibility represents a weakness in cabinet government.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. [25 marks]
Edexcel: Evaluate the view that collective responsibility makes a government appear stronger. [30 marks]

Table of Contents

UK Government Collective Responsibility

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