Heads tell MPs exam watchdog 'failed' in GCSE grades


Ofqual's Glenys Stacey: "There has been no political interference."

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Head teachers' leader Brian Lightman has told MPs that there have been "major flaws" and unfairnesses in this year's GCSE English grades.

The Education Select Committee is investigating claims that grades have been manipulated downwards.

Ahead of the hearing, leaked letters showed that exams watchdog Ofqual had ordered the exam board Edexcel to make changes in its grade boundaries.

But Ofqual head Glenys Stacey told MPs: "We played our proper part."

In a further challenge, the education minister in Wales has called for urgent talks over the "injustice" of grades, raising the prospect that pupils in Wales could have their GCSE results raised while their English counterparts would have a lower grade for the same standard of work.

However Ms Stacey told MPs there had been concerns that pupils in Wales were performing at a lower level than in England - and that this had caused difficulties in setting common grades with the WJEC exam board in Wales.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg is also writing to Education Secretary Michael Gove to call for the release of all correspondence between Ofqual and his department over GCSE marking - and for the release of correspondence between Ofqual and other exam boards.

But Ms Stacey assured the select committee that there had been no "political interference".


The exam regulator defended Ofqual's role in ensuring that the grades awarded for exams accurately reflected the level of achievement.


  • Ofqual monitors exams in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland
  • Its role is to ensure standards are maintained and candidates' qualifications are correctly valued
  • It is an independent body. While critics have questioned whether the watchdog is subject to pressure from politicians, chief executive Glenys Stacey told MPs there had been no political interference in this year's GCSE row
  • The watchdog stands accused of putting exam boards under pressure to raise grade boundaries in this year's English GCSE
  • Ofqual launched its own inquiry into the English GCSE debacle and concluded the grades awarded in June were correct and assessments marked in January 2012 were "graded generously"
  • The Welsh government is pressing for Welsh students to have their results regraded, a move which would effectively undermine Ofqual's conclusions

She said there had been many "significant unknowns" in changes to modules of the GCSE English exam, which had to be resolved in the final awarding of grades.

But committee chair Graham Stuart said that MPs were "struggling to understand" why the problems had not been identified from the January results.

The exam regulator has faced strong criticism from school leaders over this year's GCSE English grades.

Overall English GCSE results at grade C and above were down by 1.5 percentage points this year.

Mr Lightman, leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, told MPs that he believed that the exam grades for pupils taking the English GCSE in the summer had been been forced downwards in an attempt to balance an "over-generous" marking in January - in a way that was unfair for individual students.

He also argued that this made it impossible to argue that the exam had used a common standard, when different levels of rigour were applied in different parts of the year.

Mike Griffiths, head of Northampton School for Boys, told the select committee that "Ofqual failed to maintain standards".

He told MPs that in his school his English results had fallen by 17% - when in previous years there had only been a small variation in these results.

It meant that for those pupils who had missed out their "hopes and aspirations had been shattered".

Mr Griffiths said that "you could play games with statistics", but in many schools "students in great numbers have been downgraded".

Pupils who were given a D grade rather than the expected C grade could mean that difference between staying on at school or dropping out and becoming a Neet, said Kenny Fredericks, head of George Green's School in east London.

January 'leniency'

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers told MPs the regulator's efforts for a "comparable outcome" had failed - and called for an independent inquiry, saying that Ofqual could not investigate itself.

Head teachers, teachers' leaders and pupils have complained that those who sat the exam in January this year were treated more leniently than those who sat it in June.

Ofqual says that the June grade boundaries were set at the right level, but has acknowledged there was a problem with the January boundaries. It refused to order exam boards to regrade this year's exams.


  • Issues with GCSE English grading emerged as results reached schools last month
  • Heads suggested the exams had been marked over-harshly after Ofqual told exam boards to keep an eye on grade inflation
  • Exam boards told reporters grade boundaries had changed significantly mid-way through the year
  • Alterations were as much as 10 marks
  • Heads complained pupils who sat GCSE English in the winter might have got a lower mark had they sat it in the summer
  • Their unions called for an investigation and some mentioned legal action
  • Ofqual held a short inquiry but refused to order regrading

Before the committee took evidence, the Times Educational Supplement published letters revealing the pressure put on one of England's largest exam boards, Edexcel to change its grade boundaries.

The letters show that once all GCSE papers were marked, a significantly larger number of candidates than expected - some 8% more - had achieved a grade C.

Ofqual's director of standards and research, Dennis Opposs, wrote to Edexcel urging examiners to act quickly and produce results that were "closer to the predictions".

"This may require you to move grade boundary marks further than might normally be required," he wrote.

Edexcel initially rejected this, but subsequently complied.

Ms Stacey told MPs that if the exam board had not complied she would have used her powers to force them.


After the publication of the letters, Edexcel said: "Where the grade boundaries were positioned for GCSE English was clearly a matter of extensive discussion this year between exam boards and the regulator.

"As this correspondence shows, Edexcel made certain reservations clear to Ofqual, in the interests of maintaining standards. Our final award, which we believe was fair to all learners, followed specific requests from Ofqual to help them to do that on a national basis across all exam boards."

An Ofqual spokesman said: "We have made it clear that where exam boards propose results that differ significantly from expectations, we will challenge them and intervene where necessary to make sure standards are correct.

"This is exactly the job Parliament intended the independent regulator to do when it set us up".

A former Ofqual board member, John Townsley, now an academy principal, said this had been a "disgraceful episode" and called on Ms Stacey to resign.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Conspiracy theories alive & well here.Anyone read the statement on the AQA site which as much as says heads were gaming the system by choosing more coursework and doing so in such numbers that it affected scores.Then there's the 'political pressure' of Ofqual asking boards to not let grades move more than 1% as 'reported' by the BBC. Ooooh. A regulator regulating. Whatever next? The BBC reporting?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    The normative vs criterion based argument is very simple: Does a prospective employer, FE or HE institution want to know what a student is capable of, or where they rank in a cohort? In my experience of working in FE and with employers, we want to know what they can do, a university and the exam boards would find it useful to know what percentile they are in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Standards have not necessarily "slipped". I watched my son sit GCSEs this year & some are much harder than when I sat O levels. English is more prescriptive, whereas sciences are more wide-ranging. The problem is constant adjustment to structure: controlled assessments are an unknown quantity for teachers, making it very difficult to prepare students and equally difficult to mark consistently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    So there was an anomaly of 8% this year of more people getting C grades. Perhaps this year there were more mediocre pupils than last. To micro manage the situation to reduce it to 1% is disgusting to say the least. In statistics there is always the odd statistic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I didn't see many kids complaining when they were getting higher grades than they should have, only now that they realise they have to work harder at education do they complain.
    This downgrade had to happen, the only (albeit major)issue is that the intention to change the standards was not declared openly to students and teachers before it was too late.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Just as there is a level playing field for passing your driving test exam no matter where you live in the UK, the same should apply to exams / acedemic scoring. Standards have dropped with regional exam boards competing against each other, lowering pass criteria and grade levels. A 'B' pass in Physics should mean the same everywhere - Orkney to Penzance. Ordinary 'O' Level exams should return.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I'm sure there has been some skullduggery here.
    But I can't help noticing that when the pass rate goes up, the mood music is " it's all down to the students and excellent teachers". When the pass rate goes down it's "the system, political influence etc".

    Let's not pretend this whole thing is not highly politicised from all parties, nor subject to interference from strong vested interests

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.


    "Lots of confident comments that education standards have drastically declined (without sitting the current exams themselves I wonder how they can be so sure,"

    I think the Universities who find themselves having to give students catch up courses on entry despite them having " passed " their exams can be fairly sure about standards

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    For once a government quango did what it is supposed to do and exposed the falling standards of education. Now it will be vilified for doing it's job by the people it oversees. If the teachers have their way, they will be setting the standards and producing exam results to fit their criteria, not kids with a suitable level of achievement.

  • Comment number 57.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Lots of confident comments that education standards have drastically declined (without sitting the current exams themselves I wonder how they can be so sure, besides which, our youngsters need different and perhaps additional skills in the 21st century to the last generation - life moves on). Sits strangely with the news today that we have four of the top universities in the World league table.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    But there shouldn't BE a common standard! Normative cutoffs should be used - as they were before. Every year the top 2% or whatever should get A, next 10% B, etc. No common standard AND no grade inflation. That's why the teachers and unions are hysterical about this - an end to grade inflation exposing their failures, and proving that standards have fallen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Many people seem to be missing the point. Agreed - the standards in English have been dropping over the last forty years to my knowledge. I should know, I taught both GCE and GCSE English and complained loudly about failings of the latter. The argument is, 'should the grade bounderies be changed mid academic year?' No. It is not fair to the candidates to change the goal posts without warning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Ofqual's Glenys Stacey 'said there had been many "significant unknowns" in the exam process'...

    Absolute tripe. And she knows it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Nothing new here, my partner and I were plagued at school by the regular move of the goal posts in the 1960's. It really messed up our education. Our friends and children suffered the same in the 1980's and 1990's.

    We really do need a solid set of basic standards (building blocks) every one understands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    The premise that because GCSE English results would have improved this year, the grade thresholds should be raised is clearly flawed. It means that pupils are being penalised for doing better than the previous year!

    If grades are to be compared year on year they need to represent a standard level of ability, otherwise it becomes impossible to evaluate that ability in any meaningful way at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Of course it is grossly unfair to change the goal posts at the last minute. As a former Chair of Governors I am disappointed that very little coverage has been given to the views of Governors. Unlike Headteachers, Mr Gove cannot accuse Governors of being motivated by their Trade Unions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    It's interesting that Mr Gove, who loudly trumpeted his dislike of GCSE, should find that all this trouble with the examination has come along just when he wants to change it.
    He, of course, has nothing to do with the whole sorry affair, even though he's in charge and making sure he's in direct control of as much of education as possible.
    By the way, anyone who thinks GCSE is easy should try it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Of course OFQUAL have been subjected to political pressure. The same has happened with Wilshaw and OFSTED; Their agenda is to rubbish the har work of lecturers and teachers and get the education sector ready for privatisation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Heads tell MPs exam watchdog 'failed' in GCSE grades

    Every fair minded person without a hidden political agenda knows this. I watched quite a few sporting events during the Olympic games and, not once did I see them change the rules/winning criteria two thirds of the way through an event.


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