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English results `unfairly marked down', say headteachers

By William Stewart

Headteachers have claimed today that "dozens and dozens" of schools have had their English GCSE results unfairly marked down, endangering teachers' jobs and risking pupils' life chances. Boundaries deciding where grades are set have been "manipulated" to reduce the overall number of C grades in the new exam, school leaders said.

Exam board heads this morning accepted that grade boundaries in English may have shifted upwards between the January and summer sittings of the qualification. But they insisted that they followed their normal processes and pupils' work was judged on merit.

Their explanations are unlikely to satisfy school leaders with exam results wildly out of kilter with expectations that could mean they fail to meet government targets and ultimately face closure.

Scores of teachers have reported problems with English GCSE on the TES website. One claimed the marks out of 80 needed to get a C grade was now a whole 10 marks higher than earlier in the year. "They've not moved the goal posts, they've put them on a different chuffing planet," he said.

Another said English teachers at their school were in "a state of shock" after finding out their results were ten per cent down, despite having worked harder than ever.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said reports in problems with grades for the exam were coming from "every type of school".

The "big issue" was the CD grade borderline, he said - crucial for schools in meeting the new government floor target of 40 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths and for pupils' chances of getting jobs or progressing in education.

"What has happened this year is not that the exams or standards have been made more rigorous in a way that young people and teachers can prepare for," said Mr Lightman, who is calling for an investigation into the results. "What appears to have happened is that, halfway through the year, it was decided that too many students were going to get a C grade in English and the grade boundaries of the exam were pushed up very substantially. "It is morally wrong to manipulate exam grades in this way - you are playing with young people's futures." TES has been told by exam board insiders that regulator Ofqual verbally instructed the boards to err on the conservative side when setting any grade boundaries. Two years ago the regulator also beefed up procedures used since 2002 to guard against grade inflation by partially pegging results to previous years' performance. Mr Lightman said the English GCSE problems being reported related to all three of England's school exam boards, but particularly to AQA.

They come against a backdrop of overall GCSE results falling for the first time ever on the A*-C, A* and AA* measures for the first time in the qualification's 24-year history.

In English the percentage of entries gaining an A*-C grade this year fell from 65.4 to 63.9 per cent. Responding to the allegations of unfair grading in the exam, Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, said: "Our job is to maintain the standard of a qualification year on year and in English that has been done.

"There have been some challenges and discussions over the last 24 hours about boundaries, but those boundaries do move, unit to unit, they do move, session to session, but the overall judgment of the examiners and the quality of the students' work is key here, and those boundaries sometimes have to move to ensure that's delivered."

He added that examiners were "very comfortable with the overall grades they've been awarding to those students". Some academics believe the lower overall results are rooted in pressure coming from the government's opposition to grade inflation. But if that is the case, it appears to have had unfortunate consequences for some of education secretary Michael Gove's favourite schools.

The Ark academy chain has revealed that four out its five secondaries with a GCSE cohort have dropped on the five A*-C GCSEs measure, including in English and maths.

Burlington Danes Academy in west London, headed by Sally Coates - who is chairing a government review on teacher standards - dropped from 75 to 64 per cent on the measure. Ark attributed the shift to a "change in the grade C English threshold".

Statistics from AQA show that just 0.4 per cent of entries for its GCSE in English achieved an A*, and 31.3 per cent an A*-C grade this summer.

That compares with 4.5 per cent achieving an A* and 74.7 per cent gaining A*-C grades in the board's English language GCSE and 5.9 and 76.6 per cent respectively in AQA English literature.

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, said: "Any difference in results in English or other subjects will reflect differences in the make-up of the group taking the exam in terms of the numbers or their abilities.

"This year we have seen, in English, differences in both the qualification itself and the students taking it. Having said that, I am not expecting to see a 10 per cent reduction in English results across the board."

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