Hundred lose university places waiting for wrong grades to be changed

Daily Mail, 23.08.15, hundreds of teenagers are missing out on their first choice of university because of an ‘unfair’ exam marking system and admissions process, head teachers warn. HMC leading independent Heads Chris Ramsey headmaster of the King's School, Chester and Chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee, Adam Pettitt, headmaster of Highgate School and Chair of the HMC Inspection Committee and Marion Gibbs, headmistress of JAGS School are quoted.

Some pupils who get the right A-level results for their preferred degree courses – but only after having papers re-marked and upgraded – are being told their university places have already gone.

Official figures reveal that record numbers of A-level grades were overturned on appeal last year, with 122,500 scripts challenged and 23,200 changed. This compares to 59,500 challenged and 10,550 changed in 2010.

However some are taking so long to be re-marked that pupils are plumping for their second choice of university just to ensure they have a place. And many students from poorer families who fear they may have got the wrong grades cannot afford to contest the results, according to teaching unions.

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents leading private schools, said a significant number of independent and state students were facing ‘real unfairness’.

This year some schools are already reporting high numbers of challenges – with Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, saying it has requested 117 re-marks compared to 83 at the same time last year.

A number have had their results dramatically bumped up just a week after they were published. Among them, Brighton College has five more A* grades after remarking and Magdalen College School in Oxford also has five extra A*s.

HMC said that while the proportion of teenagers suffering unfair treatment was small, the impact on individuals could be huge.

Marion Gibbs, the head of the £15,000-a-year James Allen’s Girls’ School in South London, said she was ‘very angry’ about the treatment of one of her pupils by Durham University. She said the girl achieved the required grades for her language degree after a re-mark which took two working days.

But Mrs Gibbs said: ‘The university said it had no place for her. The girl is devastated.’

She said Durham had offered the pupil a place in 2016 but she did not want a gap year, adding: ‘It is her whole life. She set her heart on Durham.’ She added the marking system needed an urgent overhaul, and the exam boards have set up a working group to try to recruit new markers.

Another head, Adam Pettitt of Highgate School in North London, said one of his pupils achieved the grades to study psychology at Durham after a re-mark. ‘She got an email from Durham apologising they couldn’t honour the offer this year, but could in 2016,’ he said.

‘The girl couldn’t afford a gap year, so gave up her place to go to Southampton.’ He added that the university was acting like an airline bumping people off a flight because it has overbooked.

Durham had warned it could not guarantee immediate places for pupils after re-marks. HMC said it also had reports of another eight or so universities, including Warwick and Bristol, holding on to borderline candidates for longer than reasonable before deciding whether to take them, jeopardising their chances of obtaining alternative places.

Exam boards were also taking too long to re-mark many papers, it said, adding: ‘We call on the boards to deal with poor assessment more quickly, and universities to give students fairer treatment.’

A third head, from a West country independent school, said that schools were also concerned about infuriating cases of ‘dire’ marking, particularly when results improved by up to two grades on appeal, sometimes rising from a C to an A.

State school leaders were also critical. Steve McArdle, assistant head at Durham Johnston comprehensive, said that while schools would pay the £50 to have fast-track re-marks when there was a glaring error, neither they nor pupils could always afford speculative reassessments.

He added there could be hundreds of poorer pupils missing out on university places for this reason.

Durham University declined to comment yesterday, while Warwick said it was unaware of significant issues and Bristol said it ‘endeavoured to let students know about their place as quickly as possible’.

A spokesman for the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said: ‘Boards have robust systems in place to ensure marking is accurate.

‘A post-results system is in place for schools that wish to query a student’s grade. This is completed as quickly as possible. It is important to note that less than 1 per cent of grades are changed.

‘Boards have encouraged universities to keep places open until the post-results system is complete.’

This simply cannot be justified... our young people's futures are at stake 

By Chris Ramsey, headmaster of King's School. Chester 

For students who didn’t achieve the grades to get into their university of choice, the disappointment is bad enough. But two big problems with the exam system have emerged over the past few years, which mean others are missing out needlessly.

First, there is growing evidence of poor A-level marking. Second, top universities are becoming more ruthless in their search for the best candidates, and are refusing to wait for papers to be re-marked.

This means some first-rate students are missing out on places at top universities and the course of their lives could change forever.

There simply aren’t enough well-qualified, experienced examiners – and who can be surprised when they are paid so little?

Teachers who earn extra money as examiners find it hard to mark papers quickly and accurately until after the summer term ends. But the marking timetable means they must do both jobs at once.

And poor marking, of course, is likely to result in more re-marks.

Here the headache for students gets worse, as exam boards differ in their practice. An Edexcel maths paper can be re-marked online in hours – at my school we had results overturned the same day – while AQA still sends papers by post.

This is critical when you consider we had pupils’ grades leaping from C to A at GCSE this week, and an A-level student had two of his three results upgraded.

Headmasters and headmistresses have been working for three years with regulator Ofqual to ensure the futures of thousands of students are not jeopardised. We fear the problem will get worse as Michael Gove’s reforms put more emphasis on end-of-school-career exams, and more pressure is piled on a system that is already creaking.

Some basic changes are needed. First, we need to reverse the sharp increase in the number of students whose A-level results are re-graded on appeal in those frantic late August days. It’s surely disturbing that last year 23,200 A-level papers were re-graded – more than double the number in 2010. As August ticks by, thousands of university applicants are left in limbo.

The appeals system is confusing, and ever more complex. At my school, we try to guide students through the process, but there are still at least six ‘services’ on offer, from viewing your script, clerical check, full re-mark, priority re-mark – for each of which a board will demand cash up front, leaving some desperate students signing cheques for hundreds of pounds.

Turning to the second big issue, most universities are fair and helpful. But some still refuse to tell ‘near-miss’ students if they have a place, irrespective of a re-mark.

The tales are heartbreaking. One student with four A grades was refused entry against an offer of A*AA. His results were upgraded to A*AAA but the university is still refusing to take him in 2015.

Over the next four years, thousands of new markers will be needed as exam reforms bite. The new exams will require far more specific judgment by markers. Existing ways of recruiting examiners will require change.

So, let’s have a standard and simple appeal process, properly regulated decisions on timings from universities, and – above all – better examining. For the sake of all our young people’s futures, there’s still a lot to do.

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