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 386.

    i think we all know the exam system needs to be changed to distribute the pass grades more evenly. The problem is that we create false expectations and real education gets passed up in favour of the easier route of getting an A.
    Ultimately this is of no value as it doesnt act as a fair measure of a students performance making it almost impossible for employers to sort the wheat from the chaff

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    Seems to me we've got the left and the right getting it wrong (that's quite good, actually..)

    The left want the touchy-feely, prizes for all and it's not his/her fault approach. The right want exam boards competing against each other, and who cares, coz Rupert and India go to independent school anyway.

    We need rigorous exams, properly marked, by one examining body.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    I'm pretty sceptical of most conspiracy theories, but...if state school exams are slowly undermined, so that any level of 'pass' gradually loses credibility, doesn't that play very nicely into the hands of those who can affords private education? 'At least we know what we're getting...'. Just an idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    This constant yearly complaint about grades in the UK is the cause of lack skills in this country. A pass is a pass, a fail is a fail! We keep tinkering with our exam grades that we now have graduates who can't spell, write or add up. All key jobs are going abroad to countries where exams still mean something!

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    I don't know why this is regarded as a problem. The Government is committed to raising standards after years of having illiterate morons leaving school with three A-star plus qualifications. The fact that grades have gone down is to me a sign of progress.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    The purpose of Ofqual is to make sure that grades awarded are consistent in terms of quality of work over the years even though exams will (no matter who sets them) vary in difficulty.

    What is wrong with that as a concept?"

    Nothing. The problem is implementing it in a consistent, coherent way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    364. Dancin Pagan The Mad Kiltie

    "Iwould you not be demanding that you should be charged the same price as everyone else, i.e "x" ??"

    I dont think you can "demand", the people infront got away with it

    So if you realise a mistake, rather than correcting it before its irreversible, you would repeat it for PR?

    If someone got away with murder can you "demand" you can too?

    I'm not saying its fair

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    All MPs/MEPs/SNPs/WNA members and all Ministers should exchange their jobs with teachers for a year.

    They all get the same fully paid breaks. Perhaps the security teams surrounding the above would improve school discipline problems?!

    Could teachers articulate their views at TMQs or is education too important for teachers/exam boards/politicians? Best answer is for parents to educate themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    This really is simple, whether exams are necessary at all, or are easy, or have often been marked too leniently in recent years is neither here nor there, they are different arguments. The simple question is, can it be right for C grade marking to be changed mid point in the academic year, and the obvious answer is no it is not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    For years, the number of pupils passing exams has been increasing. This must mean, students who failed an exam in 1990 would have got a 'C' or even an 'B' if they took the exam in 2012!
    From my experience, if you just fail an exam or get a 'C grade', to an employer, it is the same. Either way, the pupil should consider going to night school to work on their weaknesses, if it's an important topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    #355 I did Standard Grade (Scottish GCSE equivalent) in 1992. Even then you could buy books of past papers going back over the previous 5 years (only one exam board in Scotland too) & I got very good grades with minimal revision merely by spotting common questions & themes and directing my revision towards those. The same tactic even worked pretty well at university. Its not a new phenomena at all

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    Yet again another cock up under this government, they say there was no interference, that they did not put any pressure on ofqual to downgrade summer grades, yeah right we all believe that. Is there no level to which this sham of a government will stoop. You are messing with the lives of our kids. oh i forgot if we are not rich, you don't care.
    We won't forgive you in 2015. YOU (R) will be FIRED

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    Really who cares? Our society is so oppressed by an illegal "government" that these kids don't stand a chance either way in future life. The sooner we stop breeding the better, we have no future and unfortunately nor do our children. Let the planet die, let us all die!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    If the system needed to be changed would it not make more sense to change it at the beginning and not in the middle of the exam year.It doesn't take Einstein to work that out, That just about say's it all. It's very unfair and certainly not acceptable to change the marking half way through, you should feel ashamed of yourselves.Whats the betting none of you responsible had children taking exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    Exams don't work. They are a dreadful way of grading someone's ability. It puts the emphasis in teaching on optimizing exam-taking skills rather than learning a subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    You only need to read HYS on a regular basis to realise that the standard of education in the UK has been in decline for decades.

    You reap what you sow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    It is instructive to read the Controlled Assessment targets for Spoken, Written & Read English. A01 A02 & A03 respectively. In my experience I very rarely hear any teenager speaking in clear incisive gramatically correct English. As for mistakes in written English look no further than some HYS scripts or Trip Advisor reviews. It is not the head of Ofqual who failed students but head teachers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    I guess this is what you get when you allow money and profit/competition to be the main motivator of exam boards,schools and teachers budgets and salaries.
    It really no different to fiddling your timesheet to take home more cash.
    This is where target driven mentality has got us.
    Next health....

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    If, as the ofqual lady suggested, it was the stronger candidates who were entered for the speaking and listening assessments in January, why does she conclude that the January results were inflated? Heaven preserve us from the experts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    An important slant..CW for GCSE Eng was removed 2 yrs ago; it was open to plaigurism. CAs were brought in to change this. Disadvantaged (typical D) students who underperformed with CW have excelled with CA; they are completed in sch under a teacher's watchful eye. They can't submit rubbish so the standard has risen. Ofqual didn't forsee this; hence the unreasonable hike in their 'standard'.


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