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Exam reforms 'fundamentally flawed' say school heads

State and independent school leaders call for rethink of proposals which they say will make it harder for pupils to appeal

Posted by Stephanie Broad | March 19, 2016 | Teaching

More than 90,000 A-level and GCSE results were changed on appeal in 2015 - an increase of 17% in one year - and now school leaders’ associations HMC and NAHT are arguing that proposed reforms to both A-level and GCSE would result in even greater unfairness for candidates. 

Such is the concern of head teachers and senior staff from the state and independent sectors, the associations have submitted a joint a response to the exam regulator Ofqual’s consultation on Enquiries About Results and Further Appeals. Together, the associations represent over 30,000 members. Their response states: “We consider the key proposals being suggested by the regulator to be unpersuasive, misdirected and likely to make the current unsatisfactory situation worse.”

They expressed “deep disappointment” that reforms proposed by exam regulator Ofqual have failed to tackle the key problem of ensuring accurate first-time marks for all candidates who rely on their grades for access to further and higher education and employment.

HMC and NAHT say that Ofqual should be responding to the increase of 260% in inaccurate grades over the past five years by creating a rigorous re-marking process. 

According to Ofqual figures this would cost, at the most, 45p per candidate entry - a tiny sum compared to the £65,000 it costs to fund a child through state primary and secondary schools to the age of 16.

In its consultation on exam reviews and appeals, code of conduct and grade boundaries, the regulator proposes to:

  • Insist the original mark awarded by an examiner must stand if it is considered “reasonable” once reviewed by a second employee of the exam board – rather than re-mark the paper
  • Liberalise the regulatory system and relax the rules currently followed by all exam boards - designed to create a market economy in which boards “compete on quality'
  • Remove the current Code of Conduct

Chris King, Chair of HMC and Headmaster of Leicester Grammar School, said: “These proposals are unfair, fundamentally flawed and likely to put even more pupils’ life chances at risk. They must not be allowed to go ahead.

“We are deeply disappointed, as this was a major opportunity to make the system fairer and start to restore public confidence. We want reforms which help ensure exam marking is more consistent and accurate in the first place and rogue grades are dealt with transparently and expertly.  Instead, these measures are likely to reduce the number of re-grades simply by making it harder to prove the original mark was wrong.

“The approach seems to be: ‘we have too many complaints; let’s make it harder to complain.’ This is no way to restore confidence in fairness and accuracy.”  - Chris King

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT, said: “Students are entitled to a system that gets the marks right first time and is easy to challenge if something goes awry. Their futures depend on this, and their hard work demands it.

“Ofqual's test of 'reasonableness' is far too low a bar for marking accuracy. It effectively concedes that there are no objective grounds for preferring one mark over another, which rather calls into question the whole purpose of exams in the first place. The way to restore confidence in exam marking is to increase transparency and rigour - not to make appeals harder.'

NAHT and HMC’s submission outlines the case against Ofqual’s proposals. They say results should be checked for accuracy before sending, the ‘reasonable’ marking bar is too low and only re-marking can accurately respond to a query. The appeal process should be centrally funded and not dependent on schools’ budget. The submission also states that exam boards should not be allowed to compete, since it creates conditions where some are seen as inferior. The removal of the Ofqual Code of Practice would be ‘regressive’ due to the removal of safeguards and operating principles, eroding confidence in the exam system.

L-R: Russell Hobby and Chris King

Russell Hobby continued: “These proposals represent a step backwards and risk prioritising the system over the individual. 

“The way to restore their confidence is not to reduce the volume and success of appeals but to guarantee that the system will work smoothly and fairly for those who need to challenge the grades they are given.

“We know that school budgets are at breaking point. The proposals will discourage under-resourced secondary schools from challenging rogue grades as they will be even more concerned about spending time and money fighting a system which is stacked against them.”

Chris King concluded: “Too many devastated pupils have already seen their prospects suffer because of wrong exam grades or because their school or college was unable to afford a justifiable appeal. Teachers, pupils and parents were looking for changes which would address this core injustice and deliver results first time around which are consistently accurate, fair and trustworthy.

“Ofqual has done good and important work on national standards and we share a desire to ensure the UK public examination system is a beacon of fairness to every candidate. We have worked closely with the regulator for several years and remain confident that if the experience of schools leaders is listened to, we can reach a fair outcome for pupils.”

Individual schools have also reached out to have their say. Shaun Fenton, headmaster of Reigate Grammar School, said: “Ofqual seem to have defined ‘maintaining standards’ as some statistical fix rather than being about quality of work. They have achieved a good thing, stopped grade inflation, over the last five years, but they have become obsessed with cohort-level data and seem to have abandoned the imperative of fariness for each candidate.

“Does it matter, a few marks here or there? This year, last year and next , there will be children whose next steps to university will be determined by a mark or two here or there at a grade boundary. The difference between, for example, an A grade and a B grade can be life changing if a student is holding an offer requiring an A grade in order to take their next steps towards being a doctor, architect or engineer.”

Rupert Alesbury, principal of Carfax Tutorial College, Oxford, part of Carfax Education Group, said: “The proposal that all “reasonably awarded” marks should stand, even if examiners disagree slightly, is an excellent one. The only way to remove professional judgement from examination marking is to create an exam so straightforward a computer can mark it. We cannot claim to oppose dumbing-down if we do not accept that this means dealing with difficult ideas in a subjective way – mark schemes can reduce that subjectivity, but not eliminate it. Marking answers which grapple with advanced concepts and complex issues is necessarily a subjective process and as long as examiners have followed the mark scheme we should trust their judgement.”

Michael Turner, Joint Council for Qualifications’ Director General, said the organisations were ‘undermining’ the work of teachers who mark exam papers each year.

“We have a rigorous and robust assessment system that requires these teacher-examiners to undergo thorough training and be continually monitored throughout the marking process,” said Michael. “The regulator Ofqual’s own research has shown it’s a system to have confidence in.

“Where grades change, most are due to a legitimate difference in the two examiners’ judgement and often found in subjects like English or History where there’s a level of interpretation. It’s a misunderstanding of the system to claim this equals poor marking and we believe the reforms set out by Ofqual will go a long way in recognising this. Of course, exam boards are committed to eradicating true errors and, in the small number of cases where they do occur, they’re corrected.

“Exam boards look forward to continuing working with teacher associations to encourage more teachers, from both the independent and state sector, to become examiners and benefit from excellent professional development opportunities.”

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