‘The exam regulator has failed pupils, parents and teachers’

TES, 31.05.16, it is clear from Ofqual's undemocratic response to the problem of exam appeals that its loyalties lie first with itself, and second with the exam boards, writes Peter Hamilton, Chair of HMC's Academic Policy Committee and Headmaster of leading independent The Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Hertfordshire.

As teenagers all over the country continue to slog over their examinations this week, they will, thankfully, be unaware that a very serious decision has just been taken which will decrease their chances of gaining fair and accurate grades.

The background is that the exam watchdog Ofqual is taking action over the ever-increasing numbers of successful challenges to suspect exam results. Last year more than 90,000 grades had to be changed after appeals by schools who knew that particular results were out of line with a pupil’s other grades and quite simply, not believable. That was an increase of 17 per cent in just one year.

So what has Ofqual done? Sort out paper setting, the quality of assessment and marking, perhaps – essentially fix a system increasingly not fit for purpose? No. Instead, it has made it more difficult to appeal successfully. It has fixed its own problem of embarrassingly high  numbers of re-marks whilst leaving the public’s problem firmly in place. At the same time, it has insolently suggested that this new system is, in fact, fairer and those who have been campaigning to get accurate results for all pupils are doing so through ignorance and self-interest.

Essentially, pupils sitting their GCSEs and A levels will now face a tough new process if they challenge their grades in August. Exam boards will not be allowed to change a mark on the basis that a second examiner brought in to check the original mark disagrees with the first grade. Instead it will all be based on the concept of “reasonableness” (as yet unclear) and a “clear marking error” (ditto).

This is, quite simply, a cynical and undemocratic response to a serious problem which affects young people hopes and futures. It is unfair and shameful on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start. But here goes.

Ofqual says its reforms will prevent pupils from getting a second bite of the cherry, because that’s not fair on the ones who don’t appeal. Hold on. Isn’t that like saying a customer who has been charged the wrong price shouldn’t be charged the right price because others haven’t thought to ask for their refund? Or worse, because others don’t have the wherewithal to challenge? No fair deal here. It doesn’t matter if the pupil is on the C/D borderline at GCSE or A*/A at A level, inaccuracies have major life consequences.

'Making appeals is our right and our duty'

The regulator tells us there are too many appeals and that independent schools like mine appeal too much. Does Ofqual think we all sit about joyfully anticipating the prospect of spending months battling an already labyrinthine appeals process? We have schools to run and pupils to teach. Schools appeal because they believe the original marks are wrong, and for no other reason. That is our right and our duty, and plenty of state schools do the same. If the grades are accurate, that’s fine. We all know that judgement plays a part in marking papers, especially in humanities and arts subjects. But we will not give up appealing untrustworthy grades on behalf of pupils whose university places and other life chances depend on them. And we will not stop working with our excellent colleagues in the state sector who also want a more transparent and fairer appeals system.

However, achieving this will be increasingly tough. Whatever its weasly words, it is clear the regulator’s loyalties lie first with itself, and second with the exam boards. Teachers, families and pupils come a very bad third. This is demonstrated by the fact that these decisions have blatantly ignored detailed counter proposals made by the HMC (the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference) and school leaders' union the NAHT – and indeed Ofqual’s own original best solution.

We backed “double-blind” marking – bringing in trained examiners to re-mark an exam paper from scratch. This is clearly what should have happened. No deal. And, for our efforts, we were rewarded with hundreds more pages of “consultation” to be dealt with in a clearly impossibly short timescale alongside our day job, and being sidelined. The decision was announced (again) as schools broke up for half term and the first we knew was when journalists contacted us. This, despite our requests to be kept informed. So much for democracy and the obligations of a publicly funded body to its stakeholders.

So where does this leave pupils, their families and teachers? Ofqual will say that the new system will be more transparent as exam papers will be available and families can appeal direct; that state and independent school heads don’t really understand; that there is no such thing as a correct mark anyway. There’s smoke and mirrors here, so don’t be fooled. If experienced teachers can’t successfully navigate the system, if it’s rigged against you, where’s the justice in that? And even if there is no such thing as a correct mark – a highly contested point in some subjects at least – then double-blind marking is the best solution.

These reforms will certainly achieve Ofqual’s aim of bringing down the number of re-marks so it can trumpet a victory. That’s why it is willing to batten down the hatches now and ride out the storm of lost pupil and teacher confidence in the forlorn hope that we will go away. We won’t. This crackdown on appeals is shortsighted, alienates those it should be working with and fails those it should be protecting. It will never achieve the aim of parents, pupils and teachers; namely of achieving a just and fair exam marking system for every individual pupil. On this test the regulator has failed its duty miserably.

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