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Proposed exam regulation reforms are “fundamentally flawed” and will increase unfairness and harm students’ life chances, say school heads

State and independent school leaders have today (March 18) jointly called for a rethink of proposals which they say will make it harder for pupils to appeal against suspect exam marks.

More than 90,000 A Level and GCSE results were changed on appeal in 2015 - an increase of 17% in one year - and now school leaders’ associations HMC and NAHT are arguing that proposed reforms would result in even greater unfairness for candidates. 

Such is the concern of head teachers and senior staff from the state and independent sectors, the associations have chosen to work together to submit a response to the exam regulator Ofqual’s consultation on Enquiries About Results and Further Appeals. Together, the associations represent over 30,000 members.Their response states:

“We consider the key proposals being suggested by the regulator to be unpersuasive, misdirected and likely to make the current unsatisfactory situation worse.”

They expressed “deep disappointment” that reforms proposed by exam regulator Ofqual have failed to tackle the key problem of ensuring accurate first-time marks for all candidates who rely on their grades for access to further and higher education and  employment

HMC and NAHT believe that Ofqual should be responding to the dramatic rise in inaccurate grade over the past five years (an increase of 260%) by ensuring a rigorous re-marking process.  Instead, they say that the regulator is stepping back and “perversely” putting more trust in the original mark, thereby making it harder and more costly to challenge rogue grades successfully. 

They argue that some of the new measures are vague and process-driven but, above all, fail to guarantee fairness for all exam candidates regardless of their school's financial situation.

To ensure every school that needs to can appeal against a false grade, a centrally-financed re-marking fund needs to be provided by the government.  According to Ofqual figures this would cost, at the most, 45p per candidate entry - a tiny sum compared to the £65,000 it costs to fund a child through state primary and secondary schools to the age of sixteen.

Ofqual consultation proposals

In its consultation on exam reviews and appeals, code of conduct and grade boundaries, the regulator proposes to:

  • Insist the original mark awarded by an examiner must stand if it is considered “reasonable” once reviewed by a second employee of the exam board – rather than re-mark the paper
  • Liberalise the regulatory system and relax the rules currently followed by all exam boards - designed to create a market economy in which boards “compete on quality”
  • Remove the current Code of Conduct. 

Chris King, Chair of HMC and Headmaster of Leicester Grammar School said:

“These proposals are unfair, fundamentally flawed and likely to put even more pupils’ life chances at risk. They must not be allowed to go ahead.

“We are deeply disappointed, as this was a major opportunity to make the system fairer and start to restore public confidence.  We want reforms which help ensure exam marking is more consistent and accurate in the first place and rogue grades are dealt with transparently and expertly.  Instead, these measures are likely to reduce the number of re-grades simply by making it harder to prove the original mark was wrong.

“The approach seems to be: ‘we have too many complaints; let’s make it harder to complain.’  This is no way to restore confidence in fairness and accuracy.” 

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT said:

“Students are entitled to a system that gets the marks right first time and is easy to challenge if something goes awry. Their futures depend on this, and their hard work demands it.

“Ofqual's test of 'reasonableness' is far too low a bar for marking accuracy. It effectively concedes that there are no objective grounds for preferring one mark over another, which rather calls into question the whole purpose of exams in the first place. The way to restore confidence in exam marking is to increase transparency and rigour - not to make appeals harder."

NAHT/HMC Response

NAHT and HMC’s submission contains answers to Ofqual’s specific questions plus an introductory section putting the case against the proposals and suggesting an alternative. It makes the following points.

Accuracy in marking and conducting appeals

  • The regulator’s proposals take no steps to resolve the key problem – that too many candidates are given inaccurate marks. Ofqual should require boards to undertake specific checks of accuracy before results leave their premises. 
  • This is particularly important, given reformed GCSEs and A-levels from 2017 will require more expertise from markers.
  • Once a mark or a grade is queried, merely requiring exam boards to assert their marking was ‘reasonable’ sets the regulatory bar far too low and loads the dice unfairly against candidates who may have been marked poorly.
  • This is low aspiration on the part of the regulator. The test of ‘reasonableness’ is weak; it is approximate and subjective
  • It also fails to recognise the moral aspect of examining: candidates must have faith that they deserve an accurate mark and the examining process can determine with some precision what this is.  The only credible response to a query about marking accuracy is that the paper is re-marked
  • Ofqual’s own research shows it is wrong to say that re-marking cannot improve the accuracy of an initial mark
  • It also shows that double-blind re-marking is by far the most reliable way to check the accuracy of the first result.  In Ofqual’s own words, this is: ‘most likely … to result in a mark that was closest to the true mark’.  This is the only reliable way to rebuild public confidence in a system which delivers consistently high levels of accuracy in marking and grading for all candidates
  • Ofqual states that double-blind re-marking is unaffordable and would be unfair. This is not the case. Ofqual’s own calculations put this at a maximum of 45p. per candidate entry, which would seem a very small price to pay for a guarantee of fairness and a tiny sum when compared to the overall cost of educating an individual student which is estimated at £65,000 from age five to age sixteen
  • Equally, a student’s access to the appeal system should not be determined by the budgets of the school that they attend. As the Secretary of State has said recently, “delivering educational excellence everywhere means ending the scandalous demography of destiny which has no place in 21st century Britain.” The appeal process should be centrally funded, both to remove another layer of unfairness and to provide an incentive to the regulator to see that boards get things right the first time.

 Liberalising exam board procedures so that they can ‘compete on quality’

  • This is unrealistic and mistaken.  Just as airlines should not compete on safety, neither should exam boards compete on quality
  • It seems wrong-headed for the regulator to create conditions where some boards provide inferior services. Ofqual appears to be so uncertain as to how exactly to achieve the necessary standards of accuracy and quality, that it is passing back the problem to the boards to see if they can do any better.

 Removal of the Ofqual Code of Practice

  • A Code of Practice has been in place for more than 20 years.  It serves to provide a common rulebook of the processes boards must follow, from the design of an exam paper through to a final appeal against grades awarded.  It is written in non-legalistic language that teachers, candidates and parents can easily understand
  • Its removal would be doubly regressive. First, the safeguards and operating principles binding on exam boards would, in future, sit across a range of scattered, legalistic ‘Conditions’.  These will be hard for candidates and teachers to find and understand clearly.  Second, one of the new Conditions would introduce the ‘reasonableness’ test for reviewing the accuracy of initial marks – something that is bound to erode confidence in the exam system further.
Further Quotes

Chris King said:

 “Too many devastated pupils have already seen their prospects suffer because of wrong exam grades or because their school or college was unable to afford a justifiable appeal. Teachers, pupils and parents were looking for changes which would address this core injustice and deliver results the first time around which are consistently accurate, fair and trustworthy.

“Under these plans, the system would become increasingly opaque and trust would diminish further.  For example, relaxing the rules by which exam boards operate is ill-timed, and the notion that they will then be liberated to ‘compete on quality’ is fundamentally ill-conceived.  Examining processes should be equally rigorous across all of the boards and this is a key role for the regulator.

“Ofqual has done good and important work on national standards and we share a desire to ensure the UK public examination system is a beacon of fairness to every candidate. We have worked closely with the regulator for several years and remain confident that if the experience of schools leaders is listened to, we can reach a fair outcome for pupils.”

Russell Hobby said:

“Ofqual has made progress in ensuring fairness between cohorts, but much work remains in ensuring fairness within the cohort. In fact, these proposals represent a step backwards and risk prioritising the system over the individual. 

“The way to restore their confidence is not to reduce the volume and success of appeals but to guarantee that the system will work smoothly and fairly for those who need to challenge the grades they are given.

“We know that school budgets are at breaking point. The proposals will discourage under-resourced secondary schools from challenging rogue grades as they will be even more concerned about spending time and money fighting a system which is stacked against them.” 

First published 08 February 2018