‘We have to get the examination system right’ says HMC incoming Chairman Richard Harman

The Telegraph, 20/08/04, amidst a crisis in modern languages, made worse by problems in exam design, Richard Harman, incoming Chairman of HMC and Headmaster of Uppingham School counsels schools to to keep pointing out the flaws in the system of our exam regulation.

Against predictions, A-level results have held up.

Critics of Michael Gove’s reforms were concerned that greater reliance this year on end-of-course exams would depress grades. But between them, the candidates, the markers, exam board bosses and Ofqual, the regulator, they have delivered a set of stable national results.

That is to be welcomed. Let’s hope we can say the same once the GCSE results are out later this week. With so much change coming to examinations over the next five years, continuity in results is important – so long as they are clearly evidenced and convincingly explained.

Analysis will be needed over the coming weeks to determine why A and B grades went down at A level this year. But most students using these exams for university entry are well set.

2014 turned into a buyers’ market as the government eased restrictions on places and the number of 18 year-olds in the population went on falling – as it will continue to do through to the end of the decade.

So – is everyone happy? Well, mostly. But there are still issues with our public exams. There is a crisis in modern languages, made worse by problems in exam design. And there is an urgent need to reform the appeals system.

It is now four years since school heads and language teachers first asked Ofqual, the exams regulator, to investigate why so few of the highest grades are awarded to students taking exams in foreign languages compared to those taking exams in other subjects.

Four years that have meant a further decline in the numbers of young people choosing to study foreign languages. And this, despite leading universities, including Oxbridge, lowering their language offers due to the widely held belief that marking in those exams is inconsistent and unfair.

Ofqual promises action. It cannot come quickly enough: for university language departments which are under threat; for schools where the latent demand for language teaching is depressed by fear of unfairness in exam marking; for linguists who see little future in teaching their subject in the UK; for John Cridland and his colleagues at the CBI who regard proficiency in foreign languages as an important part of international business; and for the British Council who have watched the UK’s place in international cultural relations wither for more than 10 years.

Regulating exams is a tough job with so much change going on. So it is welcome that Ofqual says it wishes to introduce reforms to the exams appeals system in the coming year. It is the regulator’s responsibility to ensure fairness to candidates.

It was hardly surprising that schools were unhappy when Glenys Stacey, the head of Ofqual, said publicly that the main problem with appeals was that teachers regarded them as a ‘one-way bet’.

Likening the national exams system to a turf accountant, strikes a hollow note, and the implication that teachers can’t be trusted is neither fair nor upheld in public polling.

It is unwise and dangerous for either the Government or the regulator to attempt to drive a wedge between teachers and the rest of the electorate.

As exams change dramatically in the years ahead, the need to treat candidates fairly must remain in the spotlight. The exam boards acknowledge that 6 per cent of their markers are inadequate, the equivalent of 950,000 exam scripts. It is vital that Ofqual’s Code of Practice ensures fairness.

And schools, on behalf of their students, must continue to have the patience, persistence and determination to keep pointing out the flaws in the system of our exam regulation. We all have to get it right.

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