Pupils pay price for inflationary talk

THE sound of parents whingeing when their young fail to get the A-level marks they had expected and hoped for is not an edifying one. Far better most of the time is to do a quick post-mortem, plan a strategy and give the kid a hug.

But what if it is not just one's own little darling (and who is dispassionate about their own child?) but a noteworthy number of other high-achievers, getting considerably lower marks than teachers had predicted in their assessments? If there are enough unprecedented markings-down by moderators then perhaps whingeing - or at least an unwillingness to accept that everything is hunky-dory - is in order.

Just such a situation occurred in my north London neighbourhood at the end of August when the A-level results came in. My son, who throughout the last year had been predicted a B or possibly C for biology, got a D. His other subjects were both graded B, pretty much as predicted.

It was a similar story for my son's fellow pupils at Camden School for Girls sixth form - and also at Highbury Fields in Islington and two other local schools. Here a number of pupils whose teachers assessed them at A, B or C found themselves taken down a grade or even two on their biology papers by moderators for Edexel and the AEB boards. One girl who had four As in her teacher assessment was awarded only a C by the moderator. A male student had his teacher-assessed marks slashed in half.

So what should you conclude from this - that the schools in question have had a bad year for assessment, that staff who do not understand the procedure have simply inflated marks?

That might seem reasonable if it weren't for the fact that at Camden the same science team has been in place for seven years, marking in precisely the same way they always have. Last year they were even praised by the examining board for how well they did this.

At Highbury Fields Julia Hodson, the head of science whose team have likewise been assessing for several years, says she has never before had papers marked down. At these schools the staff insist they have not changed their marking standards or methods this year. The story at the other schools echoes this.

I might never have known about this if it hadn't been for Tony Mooney, father of one of my son's particularly bright sixth-form friends who had his marks "decimated" by the moderator, according to his father. As a former headteacher, erstwhile head of science as well as having had a stint as a moderator, he felt something was wrong and decided to investigate. When he discovered what had happened to his son's marks he began asking questions further afield and discovered much of what I have reported. It is perfectly possible that the same is happening with other subjects and across the country, but Tony Mooney looked at biology because that was where it had hit his son, and I likewise investigated just this subject.

Why should this have happened? I suspect there is a political dimension at work. It seems likely that individual moderators are reacting to the amount of criticism there has been over what were seen as inflated exam results last year. Not consciously perhaps, but somewhere in the psyche a voice is saying "I'm not going to be accused of letting inflationary marking through" and out comes the red pen.

Others, on the other hand, are very possibly and properly waiting for formal guidance to be issued, so that they know precisely what is expected and so that schools can be informed of new procedures. This way children are not penalised as appears to have happened, and everyone can work together in a way that supports the children this Government is so keen should succeed.

If there is even a chance that moderators have applied a different standard this year in what looks to be an arbitrary way, the examining boards owe it to students and staff - who have worked hard and in good faith towards a standard they believed was required - to do a proper investigation and to review their moderators' marks.

As a parent I have no idea if this will help me or whether my son has been moderated down. I haven't yet seen his teacher assessment and he, to his credit, having gone through disappointment, an hour or so of yelling expletives to be deleted, has talked of doing a re-take in the hope that he will get the place at Bristol University he was originally offered. But whether what has happened affects me personally, or only other people's children, it is certainly a suitable case for whingeing.

Angela Neustatter is a freelance journalist

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