PRESS RELEASE: Students with unreliable grades even less likely to get justice, say head teachers

15 December 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

Exam results still not fair to all candidates

  • Downturn in challenges to grades do not show the system is fairer, say NAHT and HMC
  • Number of false grades continues to give concern as the cost of submitting appeals becomes unsustainable
  • Head teachers’ associations call for a re-marking fund to help all schools to ensure their pupils are awarded the right grades
  • Warning issued about next year’s results

Ofqual today released its annual statistics on the number of schools and colleges that challenged pupils’ exam grades in 2016.

This shows that the number of challenges has fallen for both GCSE and A-level results – a result predicted by HMC and NAHT based on concerns that state schools do not have sufficient resources to mount legitimate and justifiable enquiries into initial grades. This problem is laid bare by the fact that, for at least the past eight years, the proportion of challenges resulting in re-grades remains stubbornly and unacceptably high.

During autumn 2016 almost one in five A-level and GCSE challenges resulted in the grade published in August being overturned when reviewed by the exam board.

The figures were released amidst continuing protests about cuts to schools budgets and serve to increase the concern that the cost of challenging a grade is prohibitive for many state schools. The cost for challenging exam grades is estimated at between £8.5m and £25m a year, as the fees vary according to the kind of challenge that a school or college makes.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders union NAHT, said:

“It is deeply concerning that teachers and pupils are so often faced with suspect grades; we need a system that gets more exam results right first time. These figures show that the percentage of candidates given a new grade following appeal is still worryingly high, suggesting that flaws in quality assurance arrangements still exist. Whilst we can be pleased that these mistakes have been picked up and corrected we might well wonder how many more students never even had their exam papers checked but could have had their grades improved. This has serious consequences for pupils’ life chances.

"When mistakes happen, it is only right that these are corrected swiftly and with minimum fuss. Unfortunately, the appeals process is both costly and complicated. With school budgets at breaking point, we face the prospect of a two-tier system where justifiable appeals are available only to those schools with the money and time to put into them.

“Government need to address the inequity at the heart of the appeals system. NAHT have previously argued for a government-backed re-marking fund. According to Ofqual figures this would cost, at most, 45p per candidate exam – a tiny sum compared to the £65,000 it costs to fund a child through state primary and secondary schools to the age of 16.”

Peter Hamilton, Chair of HMC’s Academic Policy Committee and Head of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, said that data obtained by HMC suggests its schools have put in a similar number of challenges this year and the level of mistakes and inaccuracies have not diminished.

“These figures appear to show more confidence in initial exam results but the real story is quite different. The problem of inaccurate and unreliable grades has not gone away – on the contrary, more pupils are likely to be losing out.

“Overall, heads of HMC schools report feeling no more convinced about the accuracy of exam grades this year. This is why they have felt obliged to pursue the usual number of complex and lengthy challenges and we are grateful that we have the resource to do so for our pupils.

“We are very concerned about students whose state schools are struggling more and more to appeal because of lack of resources. This is doubly unfair and a significant worry to anyone who cares about all young people reaching their potential.

“We are also have grave misgivings about next year’s results. It’s unlikely that marking accuracy or public finances will suddenly improve. But the risk of being given a wrong grade at GCSE is likely to increase because of the move to an enlarged grade scale (9-1 instead of A*-G). Under this new system more candidates will be placed around a grade boundary and it is inevitable that schools will wish to challenge the accuracy of more initial grades.

“This makes it even more important that the regulator listens and makes improvements to grade awarding in the way it has improved other aspects of public examinations in recent years. We are hoping to work with Ofqual in 2017 on new solutions to problems which have such huge implications for young people’s futures.”

Click here to download.