QCA head's warning sparked exam chaos

THE chairman of the Government's qualifications watchdog warned exam boards that there would be a public inquiry if A-level results went through the roof this year, The TES can reveal.

While Education Secretary Estelle Morris has faced - and probably survived - the biggest crisis of her career Qualifications and Curriculum Authority chairman Sir William Stubbs' future has been blighted.

Yesterday Sir William fought back accusing the Government of hijacking the exam system for political ends and trying to topple him.

He also claimed Ms Morris had tried to improperly influence Mike Tomlinson's independent inquiry into A-levels. Sir William told The TES that a system designed to be a fair, independent assessment of young people's attainment had been used to measure ministers' education objectives.

"The only independent source of the integrity of the system is the QCA. It should cause widespread concern that politicians and others should seek to besmirch its reputation. I am determined to defend my integrity in the face of anonymous and unspecified allegations."

He said that using exam performance to measure government achievement and using it as evidence for an individual teacher's pay rise was putting the system "under unreasonable pressure".

In March Sir William warned exam boards about grade rises. In a letter to AQA exam board chief executive Kathleen Tattersall, he said he expected last year's A-level results to provide "a very strong guide to this year's outcomes".

At a July meeting, according to a TES source, there was no instruction to exam board chief executives to downgrade, but Sir William "said there would be a public inquiry if we went out with those results".

The boards agreed among themselves not to shift grades where they were considered to be a true reflection of pupils' performance. But downgrading did occur. The TES has received testimony from OCR chief examiners who say the warning to deflate grades was passed to awarding committees.

One said: "The chair of examiners and the subject officer said the QCA had 'instructed' the chief executives to get the statistics down.

"We were very careful with the A2 and if in doubt went for higher grade boundaries. When we combined A2 and AS we were told the results were 'not acceptable' and we would 'never get them past the chief executive'.

"It was obvious that they started mucking round with the coursework grade boundaries. It was a very crude job. In other subjects it was more subtle, not just concentrated on one module, because there was more time to do it."

Another chief examiner said that awarding committees were told that the A-level results had to accord with grades predicted by GCSE results.

"By the end of the first day it was clear that the grades we were setting would not give us the grades we were being asked to provide. So the A2- grades were adjusted and these recommendations were then further adjusted by the board. OCR has to justify its grades to the QCA so I don't see what else it could do," he said.

Mr Tomlinson's inquiry, ordered by Ms Morris, has collected evidence from the Headmasters' and Headmistress' Conference. It was the independent schools'

heads who led the call for regrading. According to the National Union of Teachers, they have caused untold damage by undermining confidence in the entire post-16 exam system.

It could be argued that the exam boards are not guilty of malpractice because grade-boundary shifts are allowed. The statutory rules actually demand that the boards maintain standards year on year.

Advocates of a baccalaureate-style system have seized on the A-level crisis to force home their case. Ministers have been presented with plans for an English baccalaureate by Dr Ken Spours of London University. It would be accessible to all pupils and have academic and vocational elements. It is based on the ideas presented in a paper 10 years ago by schools minister David Miliband.

News, 4-5; Opinion, 25 Letters, 26; Welsh bac, 42

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