THE entire GCSE and A-level timetable should be revised so that students get a fair chance to appeal against their grades before the university term begins, says an inquiry headed by the former Lord Chancellor.
Meanwhile, candidates should risk losing grades as well as gaining them if they ask for a re-mark, Lord Mackay of Clashfern concluded in a report into the fairness of the GCSE and A-level system, commissioned by the exam board Edexcel.
Lord Mackay, former head of the legal system in England and Wales, said the judgments reached through the exams process resembled, in some ways, those made in the legal system. But, despite the safeguards, he was concerned at several exam practices which he regarded as potentially unfair.
For example when a script is re-marked the second marker can see the marks awarded by the first examiner. Lord Mackay pointed out that this could disadvantage the student and recommended that re-marks be done with a clean script.
He said: "However robust and impartial the second examiner is there is a danger they will be influenced by the judgments made by the first."
An Edexcel pilot study is to investigate whether this "blind" re-marking has any impact on grades before raising the idea with other boards and the Government's exam quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
He also questioned a government-backed code of practice which says exam grades will "not generally" be reduced if a candidate asks for a re-mark - the stage before a formal appeal over grades.
Lord Mackay acknowledged that the risk of dropping grades could discourage candidates from requesting re-marks. Just under 1,000 did so this year, 0.9 per cent of the total, and around half had their grades changed. But he said the current system is unfair to candidates who do not choose to appeal.
One of his main criticisms concerned the current A-level timetable which determines university entrance using grades published in August, leaving insufficient time for full appeals to be heard before decisions about university places are taken.
But he warned against attempting to speed up the exam marking process - which could damage accuracy by putting markers under too much pressure.
He recommended that boards revise the exam timetable and use technology to speed up the collection of results. Edexcel is to pilot a scheme which will use computers to read candidates' marks from scripts and check the totals.
Lord Mackay found the principles guiding Edexcel's awarding of exam grades to be generally "fair".
He pointed to the care taken to achieve consistency from year to year - even though his inquiry, the first in a series commissioned by the board, did not cover the maintenance of exam standards.
LORD MACKAY'S RECOMMENDATIONS
* procedures and timescales should be altered so that they were completed before university acceptance dates;
* more use should be made by universities of AS results in making offers to candidates so that they might be able to keep open places while re-marking took place;
* computers may be able to improve the process by improving the analysis of the totality of the students' academic achievements which might allow a better forecast of final results;
* boards must ensure continuity of senior examiners who mark scripts year after year to safeguard consistency of marking over time;
* original marks should not be available to the re-marker who should treat the script as completely unmarked;
* the re-marker should have been involved in the earlier marking of the paper in question (though not that particular script) so they are familiar with the standard used in that marking;
* consideration should be given to whether re-marking should allow for grades to be reduced as well as increased;
* it should be considered whether it is lawful to return scripts without the approval of the candidate.