Education & Family

Heads tell MPs exam watchdog 'failed' in GCSE grades

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".

'Failed'

The exam regulator defended Ofqual's role in ensuring that the grades awarded for exams accurately reflected the level of achievement.

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.

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.

'Reservations'

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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