The exam regulator, Ofqual, has announced proposals to toughen up the re-marking of A-level and GCSE exams, after figures showed a further huge increase in the number of pupils and schools appealing against results.
The regulator said the number of individual inquiries about results rocketed by 22% during last summer’s exam season, with 506,000 challenges leading to 90,000 grades being changed.
Despite the large increase, the proportion of grades changed after re-marking remained similar to the previous year, with almost 18% of challenges resulting in a new grade being issued.
The number of challenges to GCSE grades soared by more than 50,000, which school leaders said was the result of increased pressure on schools and pupils to gain a C or above. Most challenges came in the key subjects of maths and English, which are used by the government in compiling its league tables.
Representatives of the exam boards that conduct A-level and GCSE exams in England, Wales and Northern Ireland said the number of appeals was a tiny fraction of more than 8m qualifications awarded last summer, of which slightly more than 1% had a grade change.
Glenys Stacey, the watchdog’s chief regulator, said the increase in appeals “reflects teachers’ increasing lack of confidence in marking and the current appeals system”.
The proposals, in a consultation document published by Ofqual, include a new framework for re-marking exams, with examiners only able to correct obvious errors rather than change marks based on different interpretations.
According to research by Ofqual, looking at a single paper, as many as two-thirds of charges in re-marks were probably down to different interpretations. In that case, the new rules will lead to substantially fewer successful challenges in the future.
Ofqual also wants the re-marks to be carried out by specially trained staff at each exam board, and wants to allow teachers to see all exam scripts – including GCSE papers – before a school decides to submit an appeal.
“These changes will reduce the disappointment and frustration that too many students and teachers currently encounter when navigating exam boards’ appeal systems,” Stacey said.
Ian Stockford, Ofqual’s director for qualifications, said: “We want a system that corrects marking errors but does not give candidates who challenge their marks an unfair advantage over those who do not.”
Michael Turner, director general of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the exam boards, said many grade changes were owing to “very slight differences” in judgments rather than poor marking.
“The examination system is huge and complex. It involves over 50,000 examiners marking over 15m scripts,” Turner said. “In a system of this scale some genuine errors – for example, where there are significant mark and grade changes – are inevitable.
“Exam boards understand the impact these have on students, schools and colleges, and there is much they can and are doing to reduce them as much as possible.”
But Chris King, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference group of independent schools, said: “The true statistics are likely to be even higher, as we know many state schools do not have the time and resources to put in lengthy, complicated and expensive appeals.”
Exam boards charge schools and individuals for re-marking, with fees ranging from about £40 to £90 a review, depending on the service requested.
The changes are unlikely to placate critics who argue that poorly trained markers are responsible for glaring errors.
“The current system, in which teachers mark exams in their spare time for little pay, is simply not able to cope with the sheer number of scripts that have to be marked each summer,” said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of College and School Leaders, which represents many state secondary school headteachers.
Candidates sitting A-level papers were the most likely to have their grades changed as a result of challenges to their marks: last summer, 28,500 out of 161,000 challenges led to revised grades, in almost all cases upwards.
Ofqual also announced a sharp rise in possible cheating and malpractice by schools and teachers in administering exams this year, although the numbers remain tiny: 262 penalties were given to staff and 288 to schools and colleges. Malpractice by pupils fell, with the number caught using a mobile phone in exams dropping from 850 last year to 790.