‘It might be Christmas, but beware Ofqual bearing gifts when it comes to marking’

There are positive noises emanating from the exams watchdog, but the numbers still do not stand up, writes one leading head

Peter Hamilton

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At this festive time of year gifts and goodwill abound and none of it is two-edged, is it? Santa does not give with the one and take with the other. Or does he, if he is called Santa Ofqual?

While we enjoy the Christmas break, at the back of all secondary teachers’ minds will inevitably be the date our pupils have with the next summer’s examiners. Half the teaching year has now passed; we are on schedule and yet there is one thing we seem no longer to be able to control – accurate grading.

In recent years Ofqual has gradually but belatedly recognised the scale of the problem when it comes to quality in both paper-setting and assessment; they have also recognised that the inaccuracy of marking is profoundly unfair and have decided to act.

Ofqual appeals system found wanting

Of course, better to get it all right first time round. But if that is not the case then the appeal system (euphemistically called "Enquiries about Results") and its related statistics, released last week, become significant.

Surely it must be a good thing that there were fewer enquiries…But is it? The system of redress is expensive (thus inaccessible for many), it requires resource, energy and time, and yet schools still have to pursue the injustices perpetrated.

The shock is that injustices in 2016 remained on the exact same scale. Meanwhile, there are a hidden number of those who do not enquire, may have been incorrectly graded and yet have, nonetheless, gained their places at a recruiting university which will allow entry on lower grades than originally offered. Handy…no need to appeal then…maybe marking is getting better?

But you can work it yourselves. At A level, the proportion of enquiries leading to a grade change in 2016 is 18.1 per cent, so no change to the reliability of first marking: almost one in five appeals continues to lead to an upgrade. At GCSE: the proportion of enquiries leading to a grade change in 2016 is 18.3 per cent. Again, no change to the reliability of first marking: almost one in five appeals continues to lead to an upgrade.

Inadequate quality assurance

Quality assurance in the exam boards remains inadequate.

There is a ray of hope, however. It is heartening when the chief regulator, Sally Collier, says: “Quality of marking is a very important issue for us…To help us understand this year’s review statistics more fully, a thorough evaluation of the changes to the review process will be conducted, to check that errors were indeed identified and corrected, and that legitimate marks were unchanged. We are also auditing exam boards’ quality assurance processes around marking to see what improvements can be made”.

We seem at long last to be on the same side, that of the candidate, and I know some are actively seeking solutions to the structural problem of inaccurate grades that face so many every summer.

So, advice when opening seasonal gifts?

In the case of accurate assessment, remember that nothing has changed and that, as before, we must pursue the correct grade. For what in Ofqual’s own words is a "reasonable" mark may, as yet, still not be a fair one.

Peter Hamilton is headmaster of the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School and is chairman of the HMC’s Academic Policy Committee

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