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 426.

    Maybe an online solution would be good like www.edx.org

    Allow one parent to guide the children through the course content. Would need to make sure wage levels were good enough so it was possible for the other parent to support (assuming two parents available)

    World class education and also the opportunity to educate you own child. Ahhh if only people weren't so greedy, spiteful and narrow-minded

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    420. Peter_Sym

    I agree Scotlands system is better and has good standards.

    The ability of the top 10 % etc doesnt vary greatly year on year and breaking it down like that means that teachers encourage pupils to do their best - not just to make sure they do enough to reach a "bar" that keeps being lowered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    This is a clear case of bureaucrats playing games with the future of young people. It is not acceptable to change the targets mid way through an academic year so that pupils taking exams in the summer are penalised relative to pupils taking the exams early. We need a clear and transparent system that ensures consistency within each academic year or the exam system as a whole is discredited.

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    Widen the investigation:
    Just GCSE English? Many would disagree.
    GCSE Geog specifications fiasco? Highlighted by The Telegraph, totally missed by regulator who authorised the specs. Why were teachers not told what they could teach in September until Aug 29th for one Geog spec?
    How much ARE examiners paid per script? How many scripts / hour needed to meet the legal minimum wage?

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    Educational methods and the examination process have definitely changed, and the kids of every generation (past, present and future) can only deal with the system in force at the time of their education.

    Whether it's better or worse than previous options makes little real difference since it is all that is available at the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    I find it interesting that Mr Gove was primarily educated in the private sector before going on to Oxford, and is now hell bent on returning the state sector to a system of exams which are outmoded and certainly not suited to the challenges facing young people today, many of whom have worked very hard and yet been prevented from moving forward by his narrow political views. Shame on you Michael.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    #417 or indeed pretty much how Scotland still do it. Its why their higher grades have stayed pretty much the same for 20 years. When I went to uni the A-level grades for my degree were BCC now they're ABB. The same course at Glasgow uni was 4 B's at Higher. Now its ABBB.

    Standardised grades means we know who the best 10% are regardless of how easy/hard this years paper is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    399. Peter_Sym

    I accept your point, but perhaps this constant fiddling with 'levels of achievement' will inevitably lead to a case of 'Not what you did, but where you went'. The old school tie etc. It feels paranoid just to say it, but I sometimes wonder...

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    @398 Chaos. Please tell me that's a joke! If not I'm afraid your college is right and I don't really know where to start in explaining why that is the case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    402. Val
    "Tell students what their mark was out of 100. Let universities set "cut-off" marks for subjects based on countrywide performance"

    That sounds like a very convoluted way of achieving something similar to the top 10% get grade A.. the next 10% get grade B ... a bit like the old way of doing things

  • Comment number 416.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    Just another media storm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    @395 'john65'
    I think you have hit the nail on head. As much as those in positions of power analyse this dilemma or continue to squabble with each other over it - there are many young people, all over the UK, still in limbo on their disappointing English GCSE exams results as to whether they can move on, improve, or how they go about it.

    Politicans have speech writers. Always remember that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    Worth remembering that examinations make up the smallest part of the final mark - most of the mark is from course work - perhaps you should be scrutinising schools? Also, the results were better than any under the last government and, were the second best set of results ever. Education ministers should make life easy for themselves - just give bogus higher and higher marks to everyone every year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    Well this is easy to sort out - when the next election comes - we'll just amend the level at what MPs get elected!

    Thought you need >50% of the vote - sorry, it's 90% of the vote now. Sorry, forgot to tell you that we'd changed the rules half way through!
    Sorry - but you can rerun your entire election campaign if you so want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 411.

    Hard to accept that education has improved when Head Teachers describe people as being ‘pressurised’ in to actions they disagree with.
    Unless they’ve been shoved in a canister and had gas inserted - a little like a human soda stream - the description is ‘pressured’.
    If exams haven’t become easier the head of a school should know that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.

    That thousands of children have received C grades due to putting in the effort, judged equally to recent exam sitters, only to have them taken away, with their favoured educational or employment paths potentially on the rocks, because there is political will to deflate grades, is sickening.

    This isn't about making exams more robust, it's simply about failing children to appear that way. Sick!

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.

    You picked the wrong examples. Iceland is the country to emulate. They actually jailed the PM and the Bankers responsible for the crash. Took over the banks, re-negotiated the loans and now have the most upwardly mobile GDP in Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

    398. chaos
    would of got
    I done the
    fills like

    Until I read your post I was going to say students were being treated unfairly. Now I'm not so sure!

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    382. Rhetorician
    Except that its only C grades that have been marked differently in mid academic year, A/B grades remain the same, so much for your government upping standards, they talk the talk but as in other areas, immigration for instance they find it difficult to walk the walk.


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