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 506.

    I missed out on the C grade in both English GCSE subjects by just 1 mark in both! ... be starting to do all the work again fills like the system has stolen from me.

    With that appalling standard of written English, I suggest that you should feel ashamed!

    Did you ever attend lessons and study??

    Good luck in finding a gullible employer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    What Jack and Justin seem to be missing is Ofqual wanted to adjust the figures to match predictions at age 11. Children change, schools make a difference.You cannot manipulate just to keep your statistics on track. O'Levels tehir was a set percentage for a pass it did not change. To increase credibility improve the syllabus. There should be one set of exams with one standard

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.

    Except in Banking where the leaders take virtually everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    You're all mad.
    If they do not change it mid cycle then Johnny Avg gets a C when in fact he SHOULD have got a D. They change it over the summer and Johnny Avg younger brother comes in and ends the school year with a D, he can't find work against his brother when they both send out CV's because his brother has a C and he only has a D, even though they're equally matched in intelligence (or lack of)

  • rate this

    Comment number 502.

    Anyone with an elementary understanding of statistics knows that a perpetual improvements in grades since the inception of GSCEs is not possible unless the markig has become easier. It looks like January was the final peak so everyone who didn't sit the exam then has been disadvantaged including all the O Level takers, so let remark every paper for 40 years! June students welcome to the real world

  • rate this

    Comment number 501.

    this all about what this govt want to have their own numbers to massage their own marks to fit in with their plans & thinking & nothing else,it nothing to if he or she is intelligent enough for A,B ,C etc it how many they want pass just like the #WCA with the disabled The students done the Exam that in front so the marks should be.This is typical tory attitude towards ordinary people

  • rate this

    Comment number 500.

    The boards move the grade boundaries all the time. Passing a significantly higher percentage of a cohort one year than another is inherently unfair.
    Either Edexcel or the schools screwed up. To blame Ofqual is daft.
    We should have one board for each subject and pass an agreed percentage every year. Tough but fair given the size of the cohorts.
    GCSE was supposed to be criteria related, it isn't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 499.

    Isn't it time we decided to have CRITERION referenced marking instead of NORM referencing.

    The standard needs to be defined as a level that is reached when criteria (prepublished) are met or exceeded and not decided upon later by some body or individual!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 498.


    If the Olympics were run like GCSE's then everyone would get a medal - because its the taking part that counts and everyone's a winner.

    The old GCE was a way of showing employers that a person was good at something.

    The idea that GCEs made less able pupils give up is nonsense. My brother in law failed all his exams and now runs his own business and earns far more than me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 497.

    Try and convince employers that a D realy a C

  • rate this

    Comment number 496.

    @105. wirral18

    Obviously all your hard work was in vain .. you can't even spell butt!


  • rate this

    Comment number 495.


    Slight difference; your hours of work have been tested by a known standard - "A" or "B" and known by all competitors - or a place given by national olympic body in certain circumstances. This standard will probably allow you to be a (semi)professional athlete but you will gain credit before the olympics for your level of competence. GCSEs are an entry level qualification.

  • rate this

    Comment number 494.

    Imagine if Olympics were run like GCSE's

    courses around the world competing with each other to have the shortest track

    seasons best times meaning you qualify for the final without having to run

    A head start (coursework) according to previous runs (timed by your coach (teacher))

    Golds for everyone who can run a decent time

    Platinum medals added because too many Golds etc ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 493.

    Kids can retake exams forever - ban it. Exam boards give easier tests so that schools chose them to get better leauge table results - have one exam board, or one subject from one exam board only. Both easy solutions available in 2010 to Mr Gove. Instead he shifts the goal posts between exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 492.

    We have always expected more from our exam system than it can possibly deliver. Placing too much faith in this shoddy system blocks the way forward for far too many pupils and distorts the school curriculum grotesquely. Are we trying to educate the whole Nation or not? Can we learn nothing from Germany and Scandanavia?

  • Comment number 491.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 490.

    and if you don't place 1-3 you get NOTHING! It's life"

    Well, is it? In most fields of employment and the economy, teams of people, sometimes many thousands, collaborate to deliver something of value. If only the most important 3 got rewarded, the team could not be motivated to help them achieve. The real world is more collaborative than you give it credit for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 489.

    470.Jack Napier ----------
    I'm afraid your post makes no sense at all!
    Shifting grade boundaries does not in any way eqate to "raising standards".
    "Teaching standards" can have nothing to do with it. Pupils taught by the same teachers were getting different grades between Jan and June!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 488.

    Exams should be tough. The constant 're-marking' and 're-taking' exams is wrong. Do the exam and move on. If you let yourself down do it again next year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 487.

    My daughter got A* (94%) Maths and A* (98%) Physics GCSE without a fundamental grasp of the subjects (she'd say that herself). Sorry, but we are cheating our kids with "lucky bag" quals.

    UK Unis offering year abroad study schemes are requiring an A at 'A' Level in Maths - even for something like Marketing Management - such is the disdain of foreign partner universties for UK Maths quals.


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