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 226.

    It seems we now in a situation where it's impossible to give fewer passes and A grades than were given in the previous year without risking cries of 'unfair'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    Once upon a time (actually when I did O levels) the pass mark was adjusted each year to allow for the difference in standard between the exams. This was done in preference to assuming that each exam would be as easy/difficult as the last and making the more sound assumption that human intelligence probably doesn't change markedly year on year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    Someone will lose out, but the priority needs to switch to maintaining standards

    GCSE & A level have become a bit of a joke. They are unfair on the academically able because they are lost in the masses

    Especially those from poorer backgrounds, who may be gifted but consider themselves average because they dont really stand out. The Focus on A*-C the priority is to get as many to C, once there..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    As with anything that politicians get themselves involved in and manipulate the trust vanishes.
    If we do not have a trusted system for education standards and examination grades we do not really have trusted criteria from which to judge.
    Without recognised standards we are just peeing into the wind and this does not help our country or industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    So, I sit a test and answer 7 out of 10 questions correctly = 70%. But, unfortuately for me, this year 6 out of 10 people who took the same test also answered 7 out of 10 correctly, so I only get 60% for the test. Put another way, because a lot of people are as clever as me, then we are all actually penalised and need to be told we are not as clever as we think we are.

    Hmm - flawed system?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    @61.paolo43 Sorry to tell you but there isn't a level playing field in Driving exams either and thats from an ex police driving instructor.

    We really do need to stop MPs from medling in the education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    GCSE's frustrate me. Jobs are based on them and if people arnt good in tests then they may not get a job that they want. There should be a pass and fail and then the students could study a subject that they want (say engineering), they should get marked on work compentency not based on a test. Someone can be great with a pen but put a spanner in their hand and they'll use it like a hammer

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    204. Redman6
    Intelligent with the potential to do well?


    I love that phrase, it should be the mantra for all schools and perhaps should replace exam results. How may intelligent students are written off because they haven't got 5 A-C's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    Its a shame there isn't an exam in Good Government.
    I suspect Gove and and the rest of the govenrment would just manage a U (for useless).

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    As I previously posted (when this story first broke ) there was indeed pressure put on the examiners to mark a lot stricter, than normal. A Level playing field ( as also for actual schoolplaying fields) destroyed for some but not for others.mmm Mr Gove!

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    It's the heads themselves & the education system that's ruined the opportunities of millions. Who among us (taking into account age & gender) are generally the laziest members of society? Correct - teenage boys. And yet it is at this stage of their lives that they are expected to work harder (for no immediate or guaranteed reward) than at any time of...tbc

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    @180 'In my day with 'O' and 'A' levels, and later at college, everyone knew what percentage you needed to achieve certain grades.'

    This is a fallacy that keeps coming up in this debate. O' and A' levels, they were competitive for each year. Only a certain percentage of that year's cohort were given an A - so you could get 75% and get a B. The next year, you could get 72% and get an A!

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    Just find yourself an old O-level exam paper (there are plenty online) and compare it to a GCSE paper"

    I would expect GCSE maths, where calculators superseded books of log and trig tables long ago, to be very hard to compare and without (necessarily) dumbing down. Log/trig tables have no serious place, though the knowledge of what they are and do is important for more advanced maths.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    You can bet the hand of Gove is in all this somewhere, it was only a few weeks ago he got royally roasted over the whole O levels are better debacle. The Welsh education minister on the other hand just said this was unfair so ive corrected it and lessons will be learned contrast that with Mr Gove and his scheming. Nastly little man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Shouldn't we be asking why the students/teachers/headteachers who are complaining would have been happy to achieve 'only' a C, maybe if they had set higher aspirations there wouldn't be this (non) issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    Get politicians as far away from exams as possible. Have one - public - exam body and do not change any boudaries mid-year (which is grossly unfair). Then we might have a level playing field in which to measure all pupils against. As it is, having privatised exam boards and interfering politicians has proved a recipe for disaster which has tainted our children - who by the way worked damn hard.

  • Comment number 210.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    One examining board, hopefully leading to one internationally recognised qualification. Britain desperately needs young people with a solid grounding in english, maths, and the sciences, so perhaps it's time to ditch the present system in favour of the International Baccalaureate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    Every year the grade boundaries are fiddled to show a slight increase in the A*-C pass rate. Ask anyone working in education and they will tell you the same.

    This year Ofqual forbade the exam boards from this dishonest practice and this is the result. It's bitter medicine but it's the only way to set us back on the road to proper education standards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    Whatever the true cause behind the regrading halfway through, the fact remains that education standards are still considerably lower than those needed to pass an old-style GCE. I have only to read through a few of the postings on this website to see that standards of grammar and spelling are abysmally low. No wonder many can't get a job - I wouldn't employ them myself.


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