I have always dreaded A-level and GCSE results days because I know only too well that the information received from the examination boards is likely to be flawed and that the remainder of my summer holiday then has to be given up to correspondence with parents and letters to the boards.
It is not such a simple or straightforward matter to challenge final grades as Ofqual and the media would have us believe. Nor will the long-overdue reports published by Ofqual last week make me sleep any more easily this year. As a veteran of the appeals system, having successfully brought about four whole-centre reviews, I find their proposed reforms totally inadequate.
Access to the procedure is as unequal as ever. Unless the cost of returned scripts and other such services is reduced, poorer students and schools remain effectively barred from seeking redress for inaccurate marking. Boards are allowed to charge what they like. Isn’t one of the roles of a watchdog to ensure fair pricing?
Fobbing off the public with the idea that in "subjective" subjects there is a “difference of opinion”, while keeping a grading system where a difference of one mark means the difference between one grade and the next, is an example of doublethink that maintains the status quo at the expense of students. While we have a grading system which calibrates in numerical totals, and while the difference between one grade bracket and the next is one mark, it will matter very much precisely what mark is awarded. Perhaps the only way for borderline students to counter this in Ucas and employment references is to point out that that they are in the zone of uncertainty where their final grade is within one mark of the next grade, and the student’s grade should therefore be treated as either the one above or as it stands.
'Gaming the system?'
Where a school remains dissatisfied with the board’s response to its queries, there is the option of taking it to a further stage – the appeals panel. Nothing has been done to address the fundamental bias of appeals panels set up by the boards, whereby only one appointee out of the four need be independent. It is not difficult to see where the advantage lies in this arrangement. The appellant remains in the position of the "away team": it’s the exam board’s pitch, its umpire, its scorers and it writes the report.
The assumptions behind many of Ofqual’s conclusions are flawed. While it is statistically unarguable that independent schools have made greatest use of the system, and by implication are the chief beneficiaries, it does not constitute "gaming" the system. The equally logical deduction could well be that independent schools have had most need to use it. Certainly that has been my experience. In every specification for English literature GCSE, I have had to pursue the board to bring about a fairer reflection of my students’ ability. Every time I have wondered why it is that my students have not had the same service as thousands of other candidates (the first bite of the cherry, to use Ofqual's metaphor) and why my holiday has been interrupted, my workload increased. Nor have I been alone. Heads of English with similar cohorts have contemporaneously been through the same tortuous process. We would like to reclaim our holidays and peace of mind.
Naively, I believed that the watchdog was there to redress the unequal balance of power between boards and schools, that it should have widened access to appeals and standardised appeals services across the boards. Instead, schools have again been left to choose between the “offers” of exam boards operating in a market-place, and students will again be dependent on the ingenuity and tenacity of their subject heads to ensure fair play. An opportunity to put in place robust procedures has been missed; and if this report was designed to ward off criticism, it has failed even in that very modest aim.
Yvonne Williams is head of English at Portsmouth High School for Girls