Q&A: GCSE English legal challenge

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As the High Court rejects an attempt to overturn controversial English GCSE grades, the BBC News website looks at the background to the controversy.

What was the judicial review about?

It centres on thousands of teenagers' English GCSE exam results. When results were given in August 2012, it emerged that grade boundaries were changed dramatically by exam boards part way through the academic year. This was done because during the process of assessing the results exam regulator, Ofqual, said the grade boundaries for some boards set for January's exam made them too easy.

And with pupils sitting exams and assessments in January and in June it meant those with the same mark got different grades. Head teachers' leaders some 50,000 teenagers received worse results than merited, with 10,000 failing to get the C they were expecting.

Teachers, pupils and parents argued this was fundamentally unfair, and after a brief Ofqual inquiry stood by the grade boundary adjustments, they formed an alliance and took their case to the High Court.

What was the case made by the teaching unions, local authorities and pupils?

The alliance argued exam boards AQA and Edexcel raised grade boundaries by an "unprecedented margin" between January and June 2012. It also challenged the decision by the regulator Ofqual to "approve, or fail to reverse, that change".

Consequently thousands of pupils missed out on a C grade in the key GCSE subject, which is a crucial bench-mark used for entry into further education, vocational training and employment.

They argue the boards made a crude "statistical fix" to prevent too many students obtaining a C grade or better in GCSE English and that this was unfair and against "natural justice".

Lawyers acting for the alliance said in one AQA exam unit the mark needed to achieve a C grade rose from 43 to 53 marks out of 80 from January to June although there was no change in the difficulty of the paper. They called for all papers sat in June to be regraded in line with those used earlier in the year.

What case did the exam boards make?

Having acknowledged that the C-D grade boundary had been raised by as much as 10 marks part way through the examining period, the exam boards, Edexcel and AQA, maintained they had acted properly.

Their lawyers argued examiners raised the mark needed for a grade C based on their judgement of the quality of the work. AQA also said that reinstating the grade boundaries would have meant awarding C grades for work below the expected standard.

While Edexcel said grade boundaries had to be raised for the June exams to stop an "unacceptable lowering of the standard required for a C in GCSE English" compared with previous years. Without this change, there would have been "grade inflation without any academic justification".

This would have led to "a loss of confidence in the worth of the qualification" and it would have been "grossly unfair" to those sitting GCSEs in previous years, they said.

What did exams regulator, Ofqual, say in court?

Ofqual has a duty to maintain standards over time and between exam boards, and the exams regulator insisted this was exactly what it did.

It argued that it acted in a "clear, principled and transparent" way, whilst acknowledging that grade boundaries did vary between units taken at different times.

Ofqual's lawyers admitted that the organisation had challenged Edexcel over the grades they had initially set, and eventually came to an agreement with the exam board on where they should sit.

It did not, however, challenge AQA's grades. It found the awarding process was followed correctly, both in January and in June. However, the awarding process was made more challenging, it said, because there was limited information in January compared to June.

It said it considered all options and decided that a regrade would cause further unfairness somewhere else in the system, for example to students taking the qualification the year before or the year after.

What was the court's verdict?

Two judges at London's High Court dismissed the challenge - brought by an alliance of school leaders, teachers' unions and councils - that exam boards AQA and Edexcel unfairly pushed up grade boundaries for English exams last summer and that the exams regulator, Ofqual, was involved in a "statistical fix".

Lord Justice Elias, sitting with Mrs Justice Sharp, said Ofqual had appreciated there were features which had operated unfairly and proposed numerous changes for the future designed to ensure problems that had arisen would not be repeated.

The judge said: "However, having now reviewed the evidence in detail, I am satisfied that it was indeed the structure of the qualification itself which is the source of such unfairness as has been demonstrated in this case, and not any unlawful action by either Ofqual or the AOs (exam boards)".

What role has the government played?

Education Secretary Michael Gove refused publicly to intervene in the exams controversy, maintaining that it was up to England's exams regulator, Ofqual, to uphold standards, oversee marking and grades.

He insisted any changes in exam grading were the result of the independent judgements made by exam boards and the regular, saying they were entirely free from any political pressure.

However, Mr Gove has made much capital out of what he sees as the need to restore intellectual rigour to GCSEs and the need for Ofqual to guard against the dangers of grade inflation.

What was different about this qualification?

Last year's English GCSE was a new modular qualification, which meant pupils could take different components at different times, and in whatever order their school prefers. In effect it was a series of bite-size exams.

There was an external exam and also a controlled assessment. Controlled assessments are sat in the classroom under strict supervision and marked by teachers. It was this element that appeared to be at the heart of the problems with the English GCSE.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has pledged to get rid of modular qualifications by 2014. In the meantime, Ofqual says it will ensure the problems encountered this year will not be repeated for modular GCSE English exams taken in 2013.

What about other parts of the UK?

In Wales, exams are regulated differently from England and the education minister has the power to intervene. A Welsh government investigation found students had been the victims of an "injustice" and asked the Welsh exam board, WJEC, to regrade Welsh pupils' papers. This led to some 2,300 pupils in Wales receiving higher GCSE English grades. Meanwhile, pupils in England who sat WJEC papers were not regraded.

In Northern Ireland, students appeared to buck the trend of falling GCSE grades and instead saw a slight improvement in their results. The Northern Ireland exams office carried out its own review into GCSE English grades. Scotland has a separate exam system with most students sitting Standard Grade and Higher qualifications rather than GCSEs and A-levels.

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