Ofqual reforms are wide of the mark

In a blog, 08.06.16, HMC member Mark Ronan, headmaster of leading independent Pocklington School on why he thinks Ofqual's reforms are wide of the mark.

If a shop responded to customers’ complaints by making it harder for grievances to be addressed, they would have every right to be unhappy.

A more acceptable response to repeated gripes about goods or service is to take steps to prevent the problem happening in the first place. Which is why I am baffled by the decision of examinations watchdog Ofqual to change its system of reviewing GCSE, AS and A level results.

Last year more than 90,000 exam results had to be changed after appeals by schools who knew that particular results were out of line with a pupil’s other grades, an increase of 17% in one year and the highest on record.

The fact so many appeals were successful points to clear discrepancies in the marking process for exams whose results often dictate a young person’s next steps in life.

But instead of seeking to fix the problem by overhauling the system, to give people more confidence in the way papers are marked in the first place, Ofqual has instead changed the complaints process itself.

From results day this August, exam re-marks will only be allowed if a “clear marking error” has been made. In other words, the chances of a careful second marker making a more considered interpretation of the marking scheme, has gone.

This will particularly impact humanities subjects when judgement is often subjective. Figures from Ofqual show that exam marks for English, geography, history and Spanish were among those changed the most on appeal at GCSE, AS and A level. Often, in these subjects, there is no definitive “right” or “wrong” answer.

Although the vast majority of students obtain the grades they deserve, which are an accurate reflection of their exam performance, it is a harsh blow for the small number of students who do not. If a second opinion on an exam script results in a justified upgrade, it can make a profound difference, going forward.

Ofqual says its reforms will prevent pupils from getting a second bite of the cherry, because that’s not fair on those whose schools don’t appeal. But that’s like saying a customer who has been charged the wrong price shouldn’t get a refund because others haven’t thought to ask.

And let’s be clear about this: Schools don’t appeal for the sake of it. Just as anyone who makes a complaint will pause and weigh up whether the time and effort involved are worth it, so the school considers carefully before making any appeals.

At Pocklington School, we consult the pupil and their parents, the teachers involved and carefully weigh up the prospect of a script grade being revised downwards before embarking on the uncertain and time-consuming process.

From August, students will also be allowed to bypass their schools to make direct re-mark appeals to exam boards, which isn’t productive, either. Schools, with the professional knowledge and experience of teachers, are used to supporting each child and his or her parents. They can advise on the best decisions and the risks involved.

Ofqual argues the changes will mean “a level playing field for all students and help to improve public confidence in the marking system.” But simply making it harder for appeals to succeed will not improve public confidence. The knowledge that results are accurate and a fair reflection of a pupil’s performance is what’s sorely needed here.

There is no simple solution to this problem – but making the appeals process harder is missing the point. We need a robust exam marking system which people have confidence in.

One option is to use wider grade boundaries, so there isn’t the intense pressure to achieve a certain grade. Another alternative, the double examiner model suggested by some, would be expensive to implement.

Or we need a structural shift. One possibility is to support schools to release teachers for a brief period each summer to give them time to mark. Any change will undoubtedly incur cost but if it results in a better structured and resourced system, it is a price worth paying.

The time has come to invest in examinations marking. Because getting it right first time is best for the student and certainly preferable to making the complaints procedure harder.

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