‘Name and shame’ exam boards who fail to mark A-level papers properly

The Telegraph, 10.08.15, a leading headmaster has said the marking system must be made more transparent by introducing the publication of re-grade statistics by subject and by exam board. HMC Chairman Richard Harman, Headmaster of Uppingham School features.

This time of year is one of mixed emotions for all those who have worked with young people sitting public exams. For pupils, parents and teachers, hope battles with anxiety. And those running schools will inevitably have to deal with mixed fortunes on results day itself.

Some students will be relieved, others upset. Some will read of their results with great pride. Others will be disappointed. For all, this will be a set of grades that, for better or worse and for a few years at least, will seem to define a significant part of who they are.

All of this reminds us that, at their heart, public exams need to be trustworthy, to work for young people and help them on the road to discovering who they might wish to become.

But beyond the fortunes of our own pupils, what will we as school leaders be looking for from public exams this summer and over the next few years?

This question is high on the agenda of HMC. Our heads have been working closely with the exams regulator, Ofqual, over the past three years to bring about an all-round improvement to examinations: their design and the quality of how they are marked, as well as fairness and redress when things go wrong at the exam boards.

This year there are several things HMC will be particularly scrutinising on results day.

First, we will be looking for a reverse in the steeply increasing number of students whose A level results are re-graded on appeal, in that frantic period from results day through to the end of August. It is highly disturbing that, last year, 23,200 A level subject papers were re-graded – more than double the number in 2010. As the days following results go by, thousands of university applicants waiting for appeal results are left in what turns out to be a needless state of limbo, worrying about whether their accommodation options or even their place at university will disappear because of marking errors.

One way to reduce this problem for future years would be through less secrecy and greater transparency, via publication of re-grade statistics by subject and by exam board. But the real remedy lies in more accurate first-time marking.

Next, we are hoping for a better spread of marks across languages at A level. For well over a decade we have known something was wrong and this year, following our pressure and some excellent research by Ofqual, with subsequent changes to question design, we expect the most able candidates to be more accurately rewarded.

Third, teachers in many schools have expressed a particular concern about one of the International GCSE maths papers that candidates sat in May. This was considered unreasonably demanding and not always clearly linked to the syllabus. We will be checking that the students concerned have not been unfairly graded.

Finally this year, we will be monitoring the recent habit of a couple of leading universities in holding on to applicants who narrowly missed their offer grades for an unacceptably protracted time. It is completely unreasonable for a university to be unable to confirm, eleven days after receiving an applicant’s results, whether or not they have a place. This must not happen.

Looking further ahead, over the next four years the government’s exam reforms will begin to bite. Many thousands of new markers will be needed. The new exams, particularly in non-science subjects, will require much more specific judgement by individual markers. Existing ways of recruiting examiners to the boards are likely to require significant change. For the sake of our young people's futures, there’s still a lot to do.

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