There’s no justice for schools in Ofqual’s reforms

TES, 03.06.16. with its new rules for exam appeals, the watchdog has opted for a quick, easy fix rather than addressing the real problems – and now everyone is being penalised writes Ann Mroz. Chair of HMC's academic policy committee Peter Hamilton's article (31.05.16) is referenced.

The exams watchdog Ofqual has not endeared itself to the teaching profession this summer. Instead of sunning themselves on a pricey high-season holiday in the Canaries, many teachers will have to spend their well-earned break preparing for the new GCSE, AS and A levels after delays by the exams regulator in accrediting new specifications.

And the headteachers and heads of departments who, each year, resign themselves to losing the tail end of the summer to communicating with unhappy parents and exam boards will be bracing themselves for an even tougher time this year.

After an increase in the number of re-marks requested by schools – more than 400,000 in 2014, of which a fifth resulted in marks being changed – Ofqual decided to overhaul the system to, in the words of its previous chief executive, Glenys Stacey (now inspecting probation for Michael Gove at the Ministry of Justice), “significantly improve” the way in which appeals are handled.

Some schools (read, wealthy independent ones) were apparently indulging in “strategic appealing”, which, said Ms Stacey, didn’t “seem particularly fair” to those schools that weren’t. So, not unreasonably, Ofqual set out to make the system fairer.

But instead of doing the difficult job and addressing the problems that were causing grades to be questioned in the first place, Ofqual went for the quick fix and made it harder for all schools to appeal. There’s no doubt it has made things fairer: now everyone is screwed.

Any schools that want to challenge pupils’ GCSE and A-level grades after results day in August will be subjected to a tough new process, which – disgracefully – was announced as some pupils were already sitting their GCSE exams.

Under the new system, exam boards will not be allowed to change a mark unless there has been what Ofqual deems a “clear marking error”. This is in stark contrast to the previous system, in which markers could change marks if they disagreed with the original decision.

'Ofqual is pleasing no one'

Two coruscating critiques of the changes from both sections of the education sector aptly demonstrate just how Ofqual has pleased precisely no one (read the articles by Peter Hamilton, chair of HMC's academic policy committee, and Yvonne Williams, head of English at Portsmouth High School for Girls).

The problems for the regulator don’t end there, though. Its attempt to bring an end to grade inflation with “comparable outcomes” was no doubt also introduced with good intentions. However, it is now struggling to cope with the realities of high-stakes school accountability (see our exclusive article"How Ofqual's grading system can produce inaccurate results").

The problem here is that Ofqual assumes that everything will remain constant: that pupils will make the same amount of progress as their counterparts did in previous years unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, Ofqual has no way of gathering such evidence.

There are the factors of improved teaching and the Flynn effect of increasing intelligence to take into consideration. But there is also the issue of schools switching qualifications and targeting groups of pupils in order to maximise grades and meet official targets.

Containing grade inflation has to be more than a statistical exercise carried out behind closed doors; it has to take into account the realities of the wider education world. The regulator must convince schools that it can keep up with changing times.

Ofqual’s attempts at fairness are laudable but laughable. If its idea of equity is to make appeals harder because independent schools have gained an advantage then that is akin to making it harder for the poor to access the judicial system because the rich have abused it.

Let’s hope that Ms Stacey is employing more sophisticated thinking over at Justice.

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