A total overhaul over the exam appeals system is needed to stop schools gaming the system, according to a stark warning from Ofqual.
The exam regulator said that the current system was devised in a “more innocent era” and needed to change. The importance of a C grade at GCSE or an A grade at A-level to both students and schools means that appeals spike when students fall a few marks short of the required boundary.
In a review of marking quality published today, exams regulator Ofqual states: “A high volume of enquiries about results are, we believe, motivated by a speculative attempt to improve results, for whatever reason. This is not what a system of redress is intended for.”
It said the system could struggle if such “misuse” continued and added that it was not only schools which are affected by the all-important grade boundaries.
“Anecdotally, exam boards believe examiners look for extra marks to award students, despite being briefed not to do so,” the report states.
“Examiners are not under pressure [from exam boards], but they are human beings,” added Glenys Stacey, Ofqual's chief executive. “They will be aware that a grade change can be very significant for the student. Those one or two marks can be a life-changing thing at A-level. We are not criticising that, we are just recognising that it is human nature.”
But the report also acknowledges that headteachers who are making appeals are faced with a complex, opaque and sometimes plodding system and that it shares some of their concerns about its fairness. Grades were changed on 54,380 GCSE and A-levels last year, after 301,267 enquiries. This compares to 28,903 grade changes on 164,874 enquiries in 2009.
The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, the body representing heads from leading independent schools, welcomed today’s report as a vindication of its campaign to improve the exams system. It has raised concerns over a lack of transparency in the appeals process for the last 18 months.
It had criticised Ofqual for not overhauling the appeals system – which it said was “fundamentally flawed”, with schools that challenge exam boards finding they simply “pulled down the shutters”.
One of its major concerns is that when papers are remarked, the second marker knows the previous score. Heads fear this could lead the exam board merely “rubber stamping” its previous decision.
Dr Tim Hands, chairman of HMC, said: “We are confident that without our intervention, an unacceptable situation would have continued. However, there have been too many false dawns for us to be confident that the job is yet done.”
Ofqual aims to complete the “fundamental redesign” in time for the summer 2015 exams.
Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, said: “We recognise that there is room for improvement. All of us – exam boards, regulators and the profession – need to improve trust by raising the profile of assessment and understanding of the process.”
The report also calls on schools to do more to support the system. There are an estimated 34,000 people working as examiners and almost all are teachers.
The report states that marking had a reputation as “an unenjoyable slog that affects personal life negatively”. It found some schools actively discouraged teachers from marking and, in extreme cases, disciplined them for doing so.
It says: “All schools and colleges rely on the exam system and they must be willing to support this system if it is to be as good as it can be.”