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 526.

    What universities and employers really want to identify is the top 5% and the next 10%, etc. If only a certain percentage got a particular grade, it would then not really matter how easy or difficult any particular exam is as the cream would always rise to the top. Having only one exam board would help. You would still have indication of relative ability despite variations from year to year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    This is sheer Media Dogma - in defence of Labours obvious failure in their Education Policies, which created educationally , unemployable youngsters - as noted by many Business-leaders.

    The 'Rot' had to stop SOMEtime...

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    489.Mr Arthur Cook
    470.Jack Napier
    your post makes no sense at all!


    OK to put it another way.

    Some schools are saying 'we educated little johnny to achieve what we thought was a C grade, if we had known that standard would change we would've taught him more.'

    To me that smacks of target based teaching rather than trying to get each child to perform to the best of their ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    I think this issue highlights some fundamental problems:

    1. What is the purpose of education?
    I don't think this is at all clear in the school system.

    2. Exam grades have very little to do with actual learning.
    They are political tools.

    3. The current system is failing our kids and our society.

    Time for a rethink i feel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    499 Mike draws the distinction between NORM referencing and CRITERION referencing. The first is fine if exams are a competition but if we want to know if a pupil has laid the foundations for further progress, then it is the latter system which we need. Both types of exam have their place but we need to be clear about what we are doing. No sensible aims are apparent in the present setup.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    The exam system has become a farce. Do people seriously believe that children have continuously become more intelligent year on year for the last decade and a half?

    There should be one exam board and the exams need to toughened up. Educators need to stop living in denial and face up to the fact that our standards fall well behind those in Asian countries and we need a change asap

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    #452 I agree and that is why we have for the last 10 years+ the annual pantomime of Lab applauding results improvements and Cons decrying falling standards.

    If grades were based on an agreed quality of work then if in one year results rose we could all congratulate the children AND the teachers for a genuine improvement

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    So Edexcel had to "...produce results that were "closer to the predictions".

    An exam board is meant to produce results that show the candidates ability. If more kids passed good luck to them, they played by the rules.

    Ofqual believes in statistics more than people. What a sad comment on their values.

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    I won't take a political stance on this because my two children experienced the UK political divide in our education system, as on reflection, I also experienced.

    I never criticise any posts on their spelling or grammar because mine is faulty. The most important aspect of education is it starts before school, during and long after. We can all access the best libraries in the world now online.

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    It seems to me that to get round the variables for yearly exam question level of difficulty, a further arbitrary process has been applied to bring the results back into line to a predictable percentage, regardless of the actual overall quality of the students for the year being examined. We have taken an archaic method of measuring ability and now bent it to breaking point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    re 61. paolo43
    The system of examination marking has ALWAYS been flawed. When I was at school in the early-mid 1960s, the marking board whose papers we sat, Cambridge/Joint Matriculation or whatever, were selected by the school and based upon which board would be the easiest from which to attain a high grade.
    Nothing Changes!

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    Personally , I don't believe that this carry on, has been confined only to schools with intentional low marks. As I have also heard reports that quite a few undergraduates at certain Unis, have been receiving grades, well below normal this year, (which will also have a devastating effect on their future career prospects!) - Something is definitely very wrong here !

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    5% took the exam in January, 95% in the summer.

    Outrage over the resetting of the standard between these dates but acceptance that the harder standard in the summer would have been OK if applied universally.

    Result - only a miniscule %age of the summer intake would have been marked up from a D to a C if the Jan exams were marked harshly. Retake the exam and prove the world is wrong !

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    Goal posts should not be moved until the start of an academic year. That way teachers and pupil's alike have a clear understanding of expectations from the word go. The pupil's of last academic year have been screwed over, were as the pupil's of this academic year will have a clearer understanding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    Evidence for Exam content Erosion:

    1976 JMB 'O' Level Maths Contained: Calculus (differentiation and Integration) together with basic intro to complex numbers and unit vectors (i = Sq Root of -1).

    2011 AQA Maths GCSE: No Calculus and complex numbers.

    Millions are leaving school never introduced to calculus, a fundamental maths element of DSPs used in all mobile phones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 511.

    What's wrong with re sit's ? I f you think you're good enough for a 'C' then you can try again. You can't argue with that. If they don't maintain a reasonable standard here. Then what happens at the end of the Education Program if we continue to let standards drop. For example, if a Surgeon has an easy ride through school and then Medical school would you like to be the patient on operating table?

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    "Try and convince employers that a D realy a C"


    Just keep trying until standards slip further or you could just be lucky and hit the jackpot like the people in Januarys exam ;)

    Probably wont be long til employers start testing like universities have to

    I cant believe complaints about getting a D for D grade work. You're only cheating yourself - you'll get found out eventually

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    The point at issue is that rules were changed during the courses and after the exams had been taken. This is unfair. It is something Ofqual should have noticed and stopped. So, it has failed.

    If there is a feeling that examination standards should be more demanding then the time to change is before children embark on the courses and in sufficient time for teachers to revise their lesson plans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    497 Steve is right. However, it is the employers who are mislead if they think that there is any real difference between a D and a C. The system is simply too crude to draw that distinction. Judging a candidate solely on marginal grades is easy but will result in missed talent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 507.

    Ms Stacy and Gove should resign


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