Ofqual plans £175k fine for English GCSE error

More than 5,000 students affected by mistake in 2017 GCSE English literature exam

Helen Ward


Exam board OCR could be fined £175,000 for a mistake in last year’s GCSE English literature exam paper which directly affected more than 5,000 students.

Qualifications watchdog Ofqual has today said it is proposing to fine OCR for allegedly failing to set and deliver an assessment which was “fit for purpose” after a question which mixed up the Montagues and the Capulets in a question on the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet.

The paper asked students: “How does Shakespeare present the ways in which Tybalt’s hatred of the Capulets influences the outcome of the play? Refer to this extract from Act 1 Scene 5 and elsewhere in the play.”

But the question should have used the word “Montagues” instead of “Capulets”, something which students quickly took to social media to point out.

OCR apologised for the mistake – and originally estimated that of the 14,261 students who had sat the exam around 4,000 to 5,000 would have answered a Romeo and Juliet question and that about half of those answered the question with the mistake in.

Today's Ofqual report finds that the error meant that 2,735 learners were given a result which had been calculated based on their performance in other GCSE English literature questions, because they had performed less well in relation to “Romeo and Juliet” questions than those other components.

Another 2,919 candidates who answered a “Romeo and Juliet” question were given the examiner’s mark because this was higher than a mark calculated on the basis of their other answers would have been.

But Ofqual considered that those learners were still “adversely” affected because they had to work out what question OCR might have intended to ask and whether they could answer it.

“The examination time and intellectual energy expended in that initial exercise is likely in some of the 2,919 instances to have caused learners to perform less well than would have been the case had OCR not made the error,” the report states.

A small number learners may also have been affected in other ways.

The Ofqual notice says that OCR has argued that imposing a monetary penalty would reflect a “selective and inconsistent approach to enforcement” pointing out that other exam boards also made errors.

Ofqual has said that it recognises that it has not previously imposed a monetary penalty in connection with an assessment material error but adds: “the error in this case stands apart from other errors which occurred during the 2017 assessment series.”

The regulator gives four reasons for its decision: the cumulative effect of the question being “fundamentally flawed” because the question was unanswerable, the fact that on OCR’s own analysis 5,703 learners were directly affected by the question, that for relevant learners the question represented half the marks available on the assessment and a quarter of the marks available for the qualification as a whole, and the fact that the error occurred during the first assessment series for a “flagship” reformed qualification.

OCR has the chance to make its case to Ofqual before the penalty is imposed. The final decision will be made on July 16.

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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