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Schools escape repeat of GCSE grading fiasco - but complaints raised about tough marking

This time last year one of the biggest controversies to hit education in recent years had just blown up.

Teachers in many schools were stunned by GCSE grades in English and English language much lower than they thought their pupils deserved.

They argued that tens of thousands had been unfairly denied crucial C grades in a bitter, long-running row that ended up in an unsuccessful High Court challenge to Ofqual and two of the exam boards.

This year to everyone’s relief, there appears to have been no repeat on any kind of comparable scale. But then there was never really going to be.

Schools realised something was wrong last year because grade boundaries had been significantly toughened up between the January and June exam sessions – sometimes for exactly the same controlled assessment assignments.

This time round there were no January grade boundaries to toughen for English after Ofqual ordered that all grades for English were awarded in the summer.

But that is not to say that all schools are happy with their English GCSEs this year. The TES forum today shows a sizeable number protesting about controlled assessment marks being moderated downwards.  As some teachers have already pointed this was always likely because another consequence of last year’s problems is that moderation of marking has been tightened.

Changes to the GCSE have not been the only fall-out from the affair. Stung by last year’s inconsistencies, many schools this year opted for the safety net of the IGCSE in English language. Entries in qualification have climbed from 18,000 to 78,000 in the space of a year. 

And it has since emerged that it wasn’t just the seeming unpredictably of the GCSE English that was behind the switch. As TES revealed earlier this week some schools apparently believed that IGCSEs in the subject were easier

Because a large proportion of schools are understood to have entered the same pupils for both IGCSEs and GCSEs in English, that proposition can now be tested.

According to heads leaders the first signs are that they were right – better grades were possible in the IGCSE.

Brian Lightman, Association of School and College Leaders, general secretary, said: “The picture we are getting from people who have chosen to double enter … is that IGCSE is achieving better results for a number of students on those borderlines.

“It is giving them an opportunity to get a C where they wouldn’t have done otherwise. Quite a few schools have reported that.”  

Exam boards offering the IGCSE have countered that standards are maintained in line with the GCSE.

A spokesperson for Cambridge International Examinations, the market leader, said: “Some students taking both Cambridge IGCSE and GCSE may get different grades – however this is not a reflection of a difference in standard. It can be put down to a number of potential factors including the different approach of these qualifications.

“For example, there is no controlled assessment in Cambridge IGCSE, unlike GCSE.” 

On GCSE English – where overall results dropped slightly – Mr Lightman said there was no repeat of last year’s variations.

“But there are some schools which are still very surprised by their results in comparison with other subjects where they have done well," he added. "They are disappointed.”

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