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 366.

    355. Ron

    "Exams are not getting easier per se"

    You make some good points Ron, but they are look at


    It has examples of past 'O' level and current GCSE in comparison.

    The Maths examples particularly. One you can do easily in your head, the other is the 'O' level

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    How to stop someone who has no idea what they're talking about on HYS:

    Find a comment like 'what a joke- an exam everyone passes'.

    Pass rates for 5 GCSE C-A are 45-50% on average. 40% of Brits leave school with no exams whatsoever. Technically an E may be a "pass" but in reality its not worth the paper its printed on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.

    If you're in a shop and the sales assistant says they think the price of something is "x" and when you get to the till it turns out to be "y" do they have to give it to you at "x"?
    If everyone else in the queue at the till had been charged "x" and you were charged "y", would you not be demanding that you should be charged the same price as everyone else, i.e "x" ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    Education is about the enrichment of society. Arbitrary punitive grading belittles the entire concept of education. As a reaction to the also pointless pursuit of grade inflation it is pointless. Commercial bodies should have no influence over exam material, it should be developed in line with current understanding I.e reflect the best ideas available, e.g the overhaul of computer science educatio

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    Headteachers are complaining bitterly whilst forgetting that they themselves have been manipulating grades upwards for years by effectively teaching students to pass the tests, at the cost of a rounded education. These young people are the victim of long term failure in the system, a system which created A* grades. As long as those who should have passed did pass, no harm is done

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    We hear that the grade boundaries had been changed, but what are they and what were they? What % of the marks is this 'tipping point' between C & D.

    I have this feeling that the reason it hasn't been highlighted anywhere is that it's embarrassingly low. Although it is possible it's a meaningless question, I remember the thickies in my school doing lower tier exams that were easier to get a C on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    ...and now thousands more children are going to be left on the scrap heap, well done politicians, examination boards, watch dogs and who ever else is involved in this disgraceful episode. Everything about our education system stinks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    In any privatised organisation success and competition is more important to their survival than anything else. And so it is with exam boards. Add to that schools in competition on pass rates and this sort of outcome is inevitble. We need one non-profit making exam board for consistency and freedom to set the the exams properly. Simple and obvious?

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    It would be interesting to get the GCSE results over time from Independent Schools. Presumably the year on year improvements in grades we would anticipate finding is explained by grade inflation rather than improvements in teaching standards at those schools. Or is grade inflation only applicable to state educated children?

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    Heads whinge when they have to produce genuinely higher standards to get higher grades, as opposed to the year on year grade inflation we have seen until Gove decided to tackle it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    Maybe the teaching proffesion needs to realise that its own standards and practices have fallen so far, that many teachers do little more than read aloud from books.
    And that the fall in students marks is long overdue matching the fall in their achievements and due to teaching to lower standards.
    Lets face it how many people under 40 can spot the deliberate spelling mistakes i've made?

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    Exams are not getting easier per se; they are becoming easier to pass, since teachers and students get used to what the chief examiner is looking for [s/he publishes mark schemes and commentaries], exam content is more predictable and there is so much support material available on the internet. This will continue whatever form the exam takes and emphasis on a final exam only makes it more so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    I think that by changing the marking scheme at the last minute shows a clear lack of understanding of the importance of GCSE to those who are making quite important and often career determining decisions at a relatively young age on the results they obtain. If the decision makers want a tougher scheme then make everyone aware at the start of a course not at the end when it's to late.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Yep, crazy situation.

    I put it down to dumbing down exams and league tables.

    Oh and theres profit to be had by the examing boards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    Politicians; butt out of education. You cause chaos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    @211 I totally agree but one small alteration, get politicians away from anything of importance. Yes they have their uses, like entertainment for example, put some in the same room and watch them try to work something out, it really is quite funny. But once they influence the real world then we all have to suffer, not so entertaining.

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    Good standards of English and maths are subjects that need to be instilled at primary education level by good teachers who are passionate about these subjects and engage their pupils.

    The difficulty is that too many primary schools in UK still think they are just an extension of play groups. Children have to move on as young as possible. Their brains need stimulation - not play-doh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    The exams get harder for once the the heads make a big fuss. They have been silent for the last 15 years as the exams have become easier each year !

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    "everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super. And when everyone's super, no one will be" (from "the incredibles")

    Bit like where GCSE's are going I wonder what they'll do when everyone gets at least a C? Add some more "stars" to the A* ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    Ofqual awards itself a clean bill of health.
    This has about as much credence as George Osborne declaring Himself a competent Chancellor
    Or David Cameron branding himself man of the people.


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