HMC warns: Gove’s exam reforms will be “built on sand” unless Britain’s decayed examining system is remedied

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) warns today that the Government’s proposed reform of public examinations will be “built on sand” unless deep-rooted problems within the examining system are addressed.

HMC, which represents 250 leading independent senior schools, has today published a detailed report uncovering endemic problems with marking, awarding, re-marks and appeals at GCSE and A level between 2007 and 2012.

HMC welcomes recent Government proposals to overhaul GCSEs and A levels, especially moves to increase rigour in subject studies, reduce the burden of assessment on students aged 15-18 and differentiate student achievement more clearly across the grade range.

But in its report, which has been sent to ministers, HMC says these changes to qualifications (the ‘superstructure’) are almost certain to be undermined by long-standing failings in how young people are examined (the ‘foundations’). 

“Unless examining is reformed substantially, the introduction of revised qualifications will amount to new houses built on existing sand,” says the report.

The report details key examples of what goes wrong and why - though much remains unexplained due to a “culture of secrecy” in the exam boards and lack of focus in Ofqual - and the wider implications of each of these failings.    

Specifically HMC detail seven failings of the current ‘examinations industry’ in England, grouped under three headings:

  • Poor quality marking: over the last five years, one school has had to challenge marking standards in 48 separate cases, covering 19 different subjects at GCSE and A level.
  • Inexplicable inconsistencies in the awarding of grades: one highly-selective school saw its English GCSE A* grades fluctuate between 11% and 65% over a decade.
  • Obstructions to redress: re-marks and appeals: the appeals process allows the boards to hide behind protocol rather than account for poor marking.

The authority for the findings derives from several sources: national data; collaborative work with schools and subject associations in the maintained sector; internal HMC surveys; and data from HMC schools, particularly from heads of departments. 

In national terms the staff in HMC schools are exceptionally well qualified in subject knowledge and its schools are part of an independent sector that government research shows to be the most expert in the country at predicting student grades accurately.   

Christopher Ray, High Master of Manchester Grammar School and Chairman of HMC, said today: “The state of the examinations industry is truly shocking and is clearly no longer fit for purpose. The problems go far deeper than this year’s disastrous mishandling of the English language GCSE grades.

“We are publishing this evidence today on behalf of all students in state and independent schools in England who do not receive the marks or grades that accurately reflect their performance and achievement.  As Brian Lightman, General Secretary of ASCL says, the findings are important and are ‘likely to have uncovered the tip of an iceberg’.”

HMC welcomes recognition by ASCL of the significance of the enquiry and looks forward to discussing the report with the Secretary of State.


Notes to Editors

Click here to download the Report (PDF)

Click here to download the Report (Word)

Additional information

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, established in 1869, is the oldest and largest (in pupil numbers) of the UK independent schools’ associations. Its 252 members include most of the largest and most successful senior co-educational, boys’ and girls’ schools and educate more than 200,000 children.


Heidi Salmons, HMC Communications Manager, 07760 889 008 [email protected]
Richard Davison, HMC Press Officer, 07725 754 824 [email protected]

  • Aperture_NHS

    The report makes compelling reading, and raises some really important questions. But what about the students? Your case would be much more puissant if you let us hear from young people who have been affected by this scandal, whose confidence has been shattered or whose plans have been thrown into disarray. Don’t let this affair lie – the public needs to hear a lot more about it!

  • Will Burn

    This report makes compelling reading, and it raises some vitally important questions for government and the examination boards. But where are the voices of the young people who have been affected by the incompetence of the exam boards? It’s all too easy to write them off as aberrations, not statistically significant, but Michael Gove needs to hear from someone whose confidence has been shattered, whose plans thrown into disarray, or whose prospects ruined because of an examiner’s incompetence.

  • Hbfearn

    That report is a great summing up of the issues we face. I would add that although poor makers play a part, so do poor standardisation procedures and poor markshemes.

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  • Pth

    As Christopher Ray quite rightly says above, this whole farrago goes far deeper and has been going on far longer than just last year’s session. In MFL in particular, confidence in the examination and assessment system is as close to zero as it could be and the motivation to follow its courses/syllabi now negligible. As also commented below, it would be disappointing if those pupils who have been unfortunate enough to be subjected to the “lottery” of public examination marking over the past five years or so were simply left to put up with it. Trying to fix results retrospectively, however, even when they have been taken to tribunal, etc. as with a number of our candidates in the past, will be very difficult now. It really is nothing short of scandalous and needs fixing urgently.

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