Press Notice: Ofqual’s review of summer 2015 exams – HMC comment and briefing

23 December 2015
Posted by Heidi Salmons

HMC welcomes Ofqual's three reports released today (23.12.15). With pupils now increasingly reliant on end-of-year exams to demonstrate their knowledge and ability, it has never been more important that the exam system is both fully monitored and fully functioning.

HMC's position

Most students get the exam grades they deserve. However, HMC remains extremely concerned about continued deterioration in the accuracy of exam grades received by a significant number of pupils from all types of schools. While Ofqual concludes that exam boards have "maintained standards appropriately" in terms of year-on-year levels of demand, we are very concerned about the pattern of 2015 results, including:

  • large and ever-increasing numbers of re-grades awarded across different subjects and qualifications
  • unresolved problems in the design of A level languages papers
  • the accuracy of IGCSE English results in 2015

Most notable points:

  1. Highest ever number of pupils given wrong grades: 90,650, up 17% on 2014
  2. Inquiries about results (preliminary appeals) up 27% in one year to 572,500
  3. 97% rise in "processing errors" reported by exam boards
  4. Many of the most able languages students are being penalised at A level

HMC General Secretary, Dr William Richardson, said:


"Re-grades on appeal across GCSE and A level in 2015 rose by a very concerning 17% compared to 2014, with at least 90,650 candidates are being handed down false results by exam boards on results day.  

"These figures represent one re-issued and corrected exam certificate for each of the seats inside Wembley stadium. That is a huge number of needlessly disappointed and upset students, some of whom will have missed out on places at their chosen further education college or university. 

"Heads’ and teachers’ confidence in exam marking and grading continues to deteriorate and it is disturbing to note in today’s report that some of this increase was the result of a 97% rise in processing errors at the boards".

Languages A levels

“HMC is dismayed to read Ofqual’s finding that the way in which the boards set A level languages papers continues to be inadequate. 

"Ofqual research has shown that the best candidates are inadvertently penalised by poor exam paper design.  Despite a specific instruction by Ofqual to the exam boards, it reports today that papers set in 2015 ‘do not appear to have been significantly more demanding than in previous years’.  As a result, the most able candidates are not able to show their worth and great answers are not being recognised in the mark scheme. 

"The apparent lack of action by the boards on this sensible solution is having far reaching consequences. In particular, the very survival of German as an A Level subject is now in doubt as the small number of remaining candidates continues to dwindle, put off by the difficulty of securing high grades".

Cambridge IGCSE English 2015

"HMC is concerned that Ofqual concludes Cambridge International 'carried out its grading appropriately' for this exam given the evidence it has released today and the widespread and considerable unhappiness in schools with the results handed down in the summer.

"We will wish to discuss with Ofqual how it is possible for a board to be given a clean bill of health on standards when grading in 2014 was not reliable and one paper in 2015 was very poorly designed.   Both this and the patterns of grades candidates received in other subjects in 2015 undermines confidence that the IGCSE English Language grades issued this year by Cambridge International are reliable".

Note: According to Ofqual’s findings released today in 2014 Cambridge International set the wrong standard by introducing ‘some leniency in grading’ and in one 2015 paper ‘the difference between C and A was only 4 marks’.

Other points

Students with disabilities.

Elsewhere in these reports it is useful to have more detail about the pattern of students with disabilities for whom special arrangements are made at exam time.  As Ofqual says, the data are incomplete but, overall, it seems that the pattern across all types of school and college is ‘in line’ with expectations (although it remains a concern that 30% of schools and colleges make no formal requests on behalf of their special needs students).

Comparing standards in subjects across boards.

It is also reassuring to see that when statistics on grade boundaries are analysed, Ofqual finds that there is ‘no discernible advantage or disadvantage in entering students for different boards’ in the same subject.  However, we would now urge the regulator to establish whether the same finding applies when the content of exams and the difficulty of questions are compared.

Question paper error.

This summer there was the usual small number of question paper errors (10 out of a total of 2,974 exam papers sat by students).  Each of these errors is very disconcerting for candidates sitting an exam under time pressure but it is helpful to see reported that in each case action was taken to ensure that the students involved were not disadvantaged unfairly.


Click here to download this press release.