Exams regulator Ofqual has pledged to do more to ensure that GCSE and A-level grades reflect improvements in pupil performance.
The watchdog has placed more emphasis on a controversial system know as comparable outcomes since 2010.
It is designed to prevent grade inflation by pegging grade boundaries to previous years but critics say the system can prevent genuine improvements in standards being recognised in exam results.
Now, in its latest corporate plan published today, Ofqual has promises that: "A programme of work planned for the next few years will investigate opportunities to further enhance how grade boundaries are set so that exam boards can better identify and safely recognise changes in performance where these occur."
The regulator adds that this work will "complement" the introduction of the National Reference Test – designed to provide an independent guide to standards in maths and English.
A headteachers’ union has welcomed this commitment and said that it could result in GCSE grades rising again – without schools facing accusations of grade inflation.
Malcolm Trobe, the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the commitment to investigate how grade boundaries are being set.
“This is a logical step for Ofqual to take alongside the National Reference Test," he said. "The reference test should show if there is a genuine improvement in standards across the cohort and then Ofqual can ensure that this is reflected in exam grades.
“Without this work, the comparable outcomes system makes it quite difficult to recognise whether there has been a significant improvement nationally in the standards of a cohort.”
Tackling exam malpractice
The National Reference Test in English and maths was introduced last year by Ofqual and was sat by Year 11 pupils in 341 schools before they took their GCSEs.
From next year, results from the test will be considered by Ofqual and exam boards before GCSEs in English language and maths are awarded.
Mr Trobe said he hoped the National Reference Test would demonstrate that schools and pupils were improving and he expected this to be reflected in future exam results.
Ofqual’s Corporate Plan for 2018 to 2021 also sets out plans to renew efforts to prevent, and encourage the reporting of, exam malpractice – including where examiners teach the qualifications for which they develop assessments.
In a foreword to the plan, chief regulator Sally Collier says: “Ready for summer, we will refresh our campaign to deter malpractice. Exam boards’ quality of marking remains a priority area of attention. Across all our work, we will continue to make sure the system is as fair as it can be for all students. The strong relationships we have forged with schools, teacher unions and other stakeholders will remain critical in achieving this.”
Ofqual’s plan also reveals that over the course of the Spending Review period from 2016 to 2020, its core funding will have reduced by £1.1 million to £14.7 million.
The plan says: “We will achieve this reduction through efficiency savings and maintaining tight management controls to reduce our expenditure. We will flex our headcount as required to deliver the reform programmes."