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A system that should be open to examination

Every summer the Associated Examining Body (AEB) fails more than one in three candidates entered for its most popular A-level sociology syllabus. Last summer one of my students was among the casualties. She appealed against her grade N, but the board confirmed that "no justification for upgrading the candidate can be found", even though her performance had been "the subject of a borderline review". She got an overall score of 40.5 per cent - the pass mark was 41 per cent. But small print legalese took precedence over the mathematical convention of rounding up 0.5 decimal fractions.

While not prepared to offer any benefit of the doubt, the AEB offered a further right of appeal to its education committee. This body was not, however, "empowered (or qualified) to re-mark papers", but only "ensures that all procedures have been properly administered". As far as re-marking was concerned, I seemed to have reached the end of the line.

I lodged a further appeal and my student's fate was left at the mercy of the AEB's internal procedures. The board alone had access to her scripts: it was judge, jury and executioner. The appeal was not upheld.

This was not the first time I had been through the process on behalf of students - nor have I ever been successful. Once, in the summer of 1994 I was invited to attend a final appeals meeting. However, I was not allowed to see my student's scripts and, as these made up the only evidence on which the board was permitted to make A-level awards, I considered that my presence at the meeting would have served no purpose. I didn't go.

More worryingly, I discovered that the independent Appeals Authority For School Examinations (a body that, in its own words, "exists to help ensure that candidatesIhave confidence that the grades awarded are as fair and accurate as they can be") isn't empowered to re-mark candidates' work. I had intended to take my student's case to this "last court of appeal", but because it doesn't have the right to conduct re-marks, I didn't pursue the matter. I believe than an independent re-mark is imperative if an evidence-based judgment is to be made.

I also believe that the AEB's exclusive "property rights" over script evidence rides roughshod over natural justice, as it doesn't allow fair and independent arbitration when disputes arise. If there is a disagreement between a candidate and a board over the awarding of a contested grade, the DFEE should permit independent arbitration by a body which has the same right as the examiners to scrutinise script evidence.

The setting up of an independent body would also remove the potential conflict of interest which arises when a board forfeits its fee of around Pounds 30 if the re-mark is in the candidate's favour - there is a system tension in any organisation, exam board or otherwise, where an admission of error results in financial loss.

The AEB is at present calling all the shots. It's unfair and unjust - it's time for something different and something better.

Dr Paul Stephens is head of social sciences at Garforth Community College, a Leeds comprehensive school.

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