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'Iniquitous' exam appeals under fire

Government promises action to speed up re-marks. Nicholas Pyke reports

Exam boards have been told to work flat out through August and September to ensure that students do not miss out on university places because of delays in re-marking their papers.

Pressure from the Government means that chief examiners will in future be contractually obliged to work into the autumn in a bid to speed up the appeals system for A-levels and GCSEs.

Appeals by dissatisfied students can currently take up 15 months - a situation condemned by top public schools as "iniquitous".

The Government this week announced an overhaul of the appeals system, saying that schools which appeal will, for the first time, be free to check pupils' exam scripts from next year.

Details of the review were released in a letter from education minister Baroness Blackstone to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The minister proposes:

* monitoring the appeals panels; * setting targets for the exam boards' handling of enquiries; * releasing scripts to candidates who lodge appeals.

Dr Ron McLone, this year's Convenor of the Joint Forum for GCSE and GCE, confirmed that chief examiners, many of whom are teachers, will in future be expected to continue working until all re-marks are dealt with.

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, said that the new measures will promote clarity and freedom of information. "They will help protect standards and ensure fairness in marking papers," he said.

The Government will also consult on the automatic release of scripts to all candidates, following the example of New Zealand and Ireland. Until now the scripts have remained confidential, even after a re-mark.

A spokesman claimed that greater openness has reduced the number of appeals in New Zealand. He also said that allowing pupils and teachers to analyse their performance would be of considerable educational value.

But exam boards have warned that releasing scripts will be costly and time consuming.

George Turnbull, a spokesman for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance said that between 15 and 20 million scripts are produced annually.

"Questions have to be asked about whether any gains are worth the costs. Who does this actually benefit?" he asked.

Ministers will receive final advice by the end of this year so they can produce new arrangements in time for the 1999 exams.

There is also increasing concern about standards of marking. Complaints have risen to record levels, with the Associated Examining Board reporting a 32 per cent rise on last year's GCSE papers. It attributes this to the pressure of league-table rankings.

The Oxford and Cambridge exam board has noted a 45 per cent increase in complaints about its A-level English examination.

"We're convinced that the number of complaints is increasing," said Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents leading independent schools. "I'm not going to say that the marking is any worse than in the past but . . . schools are a lot sharper than they were."

A-level results, pages 2-3

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