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 466.

    If the intervention by Ofqual was spurred by Gove's interference then this is to be condemned.

    However, if Ofqual's intervention was to prevent a spike upwards, as they say by nearly 7%, in Edexel's GCSE English marks as compared to AQA and others then surely the regulator was doing its job?

  • rate this

    Comment number 465.

    This is all a "just enough to pass" culture. The students we are talking about are the borderline ability students or those that should have worked harder before their exams. Yes it is tough that some failed with whatever the grade boundaries were at the time, but they and the teachers should have aimed higher in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    I reckon this goverment just hates people, and hates the kids of voters who make up their majority and of course tax payers in general, as they don't pay full tax and of course their nippers go to privet fee paying schools they just don't care, give a fig!

    Tea Anyone!

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    Stop me if I'm wrong but weren't all these students who had their papers regraded predicted a C grade? Not a B or an A, a C grade. I'm sure not everyone receives the grades they were predicted. So what if they were regraded and the students only managed a D. A D grade is still a pass. It will still get you into college. It's experience that gets you a job these days not letters on a piece of paper

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    Surely the real "disgrace" in all of this argument is the low level of attainment of youngsters in English after all the years of primary and secondary education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.


    I would suggest that your appalling spelling and grammatical errors could be a reason you didn't achieve a grade C!

    "I would of got" (I would have got)
    "I done the C grade work" (I did the C-grade work)
    "fills like the system" (feels like the system)

    D. See me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    @453. Johnza_utd

    I think'll you'd find that giving the poor all of base work to sustain the
    economy could be a dangerous thing, to keep power with the elite, divide, distract and conquer is best. Pump out stupefying media and allow them to aspire to pointless pursuits, all the while giving the appearance of being benevolent and providing e.g. education, Orwell wrote a manual on how to do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    What is wrong with the concept 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.

    Nothing. What is wrong is that is was set suspiciously on 9 August...
    That is not being consistent... That is panicking about dumbing exams. Wrong timing for decision.

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    @105. Wirral18....

    Right, you worked your "buts" off... but for some reason you still cannot use an apostrophe, you cannot spell BUTT and you still believe that you worked harder than the "oldies". I am young and recently graduated from university, I had a computer with a spell checker, a calculator, excel. What did my mum and dad have? PEN, PAPER AND A DAMN ABACUS! Not to mention the CANE!

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    I wonder if it is any coincidence that the grade C band GCSE English that has been downgraded is the very mark that students need to get into university? Maybe the £9000 a year fees haven't had reduced the number of peasants applying to university sufficiently for Messrs Gove and Cameron's liking?

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    To Morphius Bane@444 - and you don't know the difference between to and too.People in glass houses perhaps.

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.


    "...just how appalling their capability with written English actually is.."

    And if it proved the opposite then your carefully constructed view of the society you have helped to make would be exactly where?

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.

    Many children taking foundation English could only achieve a C grade. Many were advised no need to resit as they couldn’t better their grade. They have now been downgraded to a D missing out on apprenticeships and jobs based secured on the C marks previously obtained. Our childrens dreams and futures have been torn away by people who dont understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    I'm deadly serious. For too long the wealthy students have been deprived a sound working environment from poor kids who are "bred for benefits". They have neither the capacity or willing for learning and their time and muscle (they do tend to be bigger the poor don't they?) could be put to a far greater use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    442. Justin150

    "Grade inflation occurs when a particular standard of work which would have got a D 5 years ago now gets a C or B"

    You should go back further. In the 80's approximately 30% of pupils got
    A-C Grade. Today almost 70% get A*-C thats a hell of a jump in a generation.

  • Comment number 451.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    Oh JC alive. I cannot stand all this rubbish. I am sorry but exams are exams. You pass some, you fail some, you get brilliant marks in some, you fail others. What do you expect? Every year we get every student getting 50 A* 's, and then next year its 60 A* 's..maybe exams are just as hard as they should be and this years people flunked!

    Shouldn't we teach students how to deal with disappointment?

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    There are give or take 7 billion occupants of the planet- our goal should be to educate every briton to take the highest place they can occupy in a global ranking.

    I stress educate, not examine.

    The system for examination is a blunt tool delivering broad measurements of attainment. A more refined method is required to capture the talents of an individual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    Maybe it's time for one exam for all candidates and Wiki to take over the marking

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    Ofqual should publish some anonymized exam scripts, from students who gained Ds but who, the teachers say, should have received Cs. We would then see just how appalling their capability with written English actually is, we would agree that ever to have considered awarding these people a passing grade would have been a travesty, and this whole silly debate would end in a flash.


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