It is something all teachers dread - the moment when a talented student who has just received A Level results is in tears because their future hopes are fading away.
For students who didn't quite achieve the grades needed to get into their first choice university, the disappointment is bad enough. But it happens. However, two major problems with the exam system have emerged over the past few years which mean others are missing out needlessly.
So what's happening? First, there is increasing evidence of poor marking of A Levels. Second, the top universities are becoming more ruthless in their search for the best candidates and are refusing to wait for applicants to get their papers re marked. Together, this means some first rate students are missing out on places at the best universities and the course of their lives could be changed forever.
The reasons for poor exam marking are known only a few of us who make it our business to investigate it. But if we want things to improve, they need to be more widely understood.
The key point is there aren't enough well-qualified and experienced examiners - and who can be surprised when they are paid so little. Practising teachers who earn extra money as examiners are busy with the day job until the end of term so find it difficult to mark papers quickly and accurately until their summer term ends. However the marking timetable means they do both jobs at once. On top of all that, there is some pretty bad practice at exam boards: a recent report by the exam regulator Ofqual about the OCR board revealed a lack of understanding of the end-to-end marking process amongst senior managers - who compounded this by going on holiday at crucial points - and lack of communication about deadlines.
And the unfortunate outcome of this? Poor marking is likely to result in more re-marks being needed: last year 23,200 A level subject papers were re-graded, more than double the number in 2010.
And here the headache for students just gets worse. Exam boards differ in their practices; for example an Edexcel Maths paper can be re-marked in hours, on line (at my school we had results overturned in this subject the same day) whilst at the other end of the scale, AQA is particularly egregious, still dispatching papers by post and leaving candidates at the whim of Royal Mail. All of which is pretty important when you consider we had pupil's grades leaping from Cs to As at GCSE this week and an A Level student who had two out of three of his results upgraded.
At The Headmasters' and Headmistress's Conference we have been working for three years with the exam regulator Ofqual to ensure the futures of thousands of students are not needlessly jeopardised. We are particularly worried that the problem is going to get worse as Michael Gove's reforms put more emphasis on end-of-career exams, and more pressure is piled on a system which is already creaking.
There are some fundamental changes that need to happen.
First, we need to reverse the steeply increasing number of students whose A level results are re-graded on appeal, in those frantic late August days. It’s surely disturbing that, last year, 23,200 A level subject papers were re-graded – more than double the number in 2010. As August ticks by, thousands of university applicants waiting for appeal results are left in limbo, worrying about whether their accommodation options or even their place will disappear because of marking errors.
Yes, the speed of re marking appears to be improving slowly, and students waiting for university places normally hear by August 31. But the system is confusing, and ever-more complex.
I have first-hand experience of this in my school. We try to make things clear for students and guide them through the appeal process, but there are still at least six different ‘services’ on offer, from viewing your script, clerical check, full re-mark, priority re-mark (up to seventeen days, if you please, that means!) ... for each one of which the Boards will demand cash up front, leaving some desperate students signing cheques for hundreds of pounds. OK if you have a school and parents who can do it, but what about those not ‘in the know’?
It is too early to say what the figures will be this year. But at a time when we are all seeing increases in mental health problems amongst our young people, this simply cannot be justified. As one pupil said: "It's awful. I put so much effort in to my exams, then worried about the exam results, but thought at least I'd know for sure what the outcome was. Instead, I was disappointed, upset and had no idea whether my marks were even real or not."
There are various underlying problems here. One is that exam marking has historically been a cottage industry, with examiners paid less than bar staff. Small wonder that there is high turnover amongst examiners and they are difficult to replace. Worse, boards differ in their practices, so that an Edexcel Maths paper can be re-marked in hours, on line (we had results overturned in this subject the same day) whilst at the other end of the scale, AQA is particularly egregious, dispatching papers still by post and leaving candidates at the whim of Royal Mail. Then, there is bad practice amongst exam boards. A recent Ofqual report about OCR painted an extraordinary picture of lack of understanding of the end-to-end marking process amongst senior managers - who compounded this by going on holiday at crucial points - and lack of communication about deadlines.
One student said to me that he could not see why every A Level result could not be accompanied by the original scanned papers, so that the system was really transparent. Good question!
The second big problem is with universities. Most are fair and helpful. But some still refuse to tell ‘near miss’ students whether they will have a place or not, irrespective of a re-mark. Imagine it: you have a second choice university, who needs your decision, but your first choice dithers through the last days of August, presumably waiting to see if better candidates come through clearing. And you cannot accept your insurance choice until your first choice ‘releases’ you. Bonkers.
The individual cases reported to HMC, are heartbreaking. A student with four A grades was refused entry against a university offer of A*AA. His results were upgraded to A*AAA but the university still refuses to take him in 2015. A high flying young woman who was one grade below her offer was refused entry to a top university even after her re-mark brought her to A*, A*, A, exceeding the original offer. All the university needed to do was wait five days to have found out her real grades. Her plea to the university to accept her this year is incredibly moving: it’s these personal stories which make us want to make things change.
To be fair, Oxford University were kind and understanding with one of our students, and allowed him time for a priority re-mark when he narrowly missed his A*. But other universities refuse to wait, even when a student and his school are convinced an unexpected grade is a mistake. They give the place away to ... well, who, exactly? Have they, like Laker Airlines, overbooked?
Durham University has been a serial offender in this, and despite HMC’s attempts to appeal to their sense of natural justice, they are at it again this year. Having offered students a place, they are refusing to wait for them to get their (often upgraded) re mark, saying that they are now full and can only take them next year. So, the poor student suffers the double injustice of being given the wrong grade and then losing their place even though they had the right grade all along.
Whilst the percentage of students affected in this way may be small, the numbers affected in the state sector are not collated so the scale of the problem is unclear. And we are talking about all young people's futures here.
Looking further ahead, over the next four years the government’s exam reforms will begin to bite. Thousands of new markers will be needed. The new exams will require much more specific judgement by individual markers. Existing ways of recruiting examiners to the boards will require significant change.
So, let’s have a standard and simple appeal process, properly regulated decision timings for universities and above all better examining. For the sake of all our young people's futures, there’s still a lot to do.
Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of The King’s School Chester, and Co-Chair of GSA/HMC Universities Committee