Time for A-level examiners to make the grade

The Times, 07.10.15, letters responding to HMC's Chairman Christopher King's speech about poor marking by examining boards causing some A-level pupils to lose their place at university.

Sir, As an experienced A-level examiner who has marked for more than 40 years, and for two boards, I am not surprised by the deterioration of marking standards outlined in your report (“A-level marking is so bad you can’t believe grades, says head”, Oct 6).

In recent years the wholesale shift from paper to online marking has resulted in a large number of long-standing and experienced examiners dropping out; many of those who have stayed have found the system to be stressful and unreliable.

The link to real-life candidates by being able to apply a red biro to sheets of paper has now been lost, along with the opportunities to discuss actual scripts with fellow markers, team leaders and principal examiners at coordination meetings. Inevitably, the likely loss of consistency will result in some deterioration, with the unfortunate results outlined by Christopher King, the chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, and the considerable increase in demand for re-marks.

Undoubtedly, while the boards have cut costs significantly — not least in postage and travel — the hoped-for gain in overall efficiency has not come about, as the resultant injustice and suffering is now showing.

John Colley
Malvern

Sir, Christopher King is right to highlight errors in the examination grade awarding process. Yet arguably the system is more transparent and accurate than ever, with the rise in appeals fuelled by the high-stakes league table accountability in both the state and private sectors.

As King knows, private schools are facing a backlash from fee-paying parents who are demanding greater value for money since the introduction of university charging, which effectively adds another three years to their bills. Private schools in turn blame poor marking and pass on the fees directly to parents.

Perhaps the greater injustice lies with cash-strapped state schools, which are more reluctant to appeal, leaving many pupils saddled for life with grades lower than they deserve.

Neil Roskilly
CEO, Independent Schools Association

Sir, The elephant in the room with examination marking is that it is very expensive to challenge results, and many schools and candidates simply cannot afford to do so. That the awarding bodies refund the “enquiry about results” charges if an overall grade changes is no comfort to those who cannot meet the upfront fees.

If charges were levied after the completion of an inquiry, that might encourage more to be made, but an administrative system in which cost militates against challenge cannot be a fair or just one. It is time the Department for Education recognised the inequity of this practice.

Peter Sergeant
Loughborough Grammar School

Sir, Our daughter received an erroneous English language GCSE result this summer that took more than six weeks to resolve. The error was quite evident from the start but was missed twice by Cambridge International Examinations in both the summer marking and re-mark checks. What made it even more frustrating was that no quality check picked up that she had received all A* grades and one A, and yet was awarded a D for English language.

Although the error has now been resolved after two appeals, it makes one doubt that the “robust processes” mentioned by Michael Turner, head of the Joint Council for Qualifications, actually exist. It also makes one extremely concerned about the quality of examiners and markers.

Vanessa Woolley
Cookham Dean, Berks

Sir, University admissions tutors are criticised in your report for refusing to hold places open while an applicant awaits the outcome of an appeal.

A better examination system would allow at least one question per A-level paper to be answered digitally by the candidate, thereby allowing it to be accessed by university admissions tutors. Exam candidates would then have their applications assessed directly by competent specialists, obviating the need for an appeals process that may act against them, at least for university admissions.

Brian East
London W13

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