THE OXFORD and Cambridge exam board, which got a public roasting for giving out too many top A-level grades to private schools, has suffered a massive increase in complaints from the same schools - who now say it is marking too hard.
A dramatic reduction in As and Bs has sparked a 350 per cent rise in enquiries to the board about last year's A-level English.
The board - which attracted more unwanted publicity this week over allegations that its new computer system was causing chaos with this year's A-Level entries - is also in trouble with the independent exams ombudsman for failing to warn schools and colleges that tight new marking rules would mean substantially fewer high grades.
The Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council first hit the headlines when an official enquiry said it had been unduly influenced by candidates' predicted grades for A-level English in 1996.
The board's image suffered further when it emerged that most of the candidates to benefit attended prestigious public schools.
Its response, however, has not been welcomed by examination centres or their candidates. Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, which represents major public schools, says that last year's English A-level caused "considerable disquiet".
Preliminary figures released by the board show enquiries about results rising from 13 per 1,000 candidates in 1996 to 48 per 1,000 candidates in 1997.
The latest report from the ombudsman, the Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations, follows a complaint by a private sixth form college, Westminster Tutors. The college accused the OCEAC of unfairly restricting top grades in the 1997 English A-level.
This is rejected by the appeals authority. But the authority also criticises the OCEAC for failing to warn of the "dramatic" shift away from top grades.
The change behind the reduction in top grades relates to a move from a traditional towards a modular syllabus. English A-level 9620 was re-shaped so that candidates could choose either form of exam.
The Government-backed marking rules for modular A-levels produce a different grade distribution, with fewer at the top or the bottom than with a traditional exam.
Westminster Tutors remains convinced that its candidates were treated unfairly and says that OCEAC's marking was skewed towards the bottom, not the middle of the range and that the grades do not tally with comments on the students' scripts. Its forecast had been for 1A, 2Bs, 1C and 2Ds. Its results were 1B, 4Ds and an E.
An OCEAC spokesman said inquiries had increased because "this was the first year in which exams were strictly marked and a number did not get the grades they expected". The board, he said, still disputed the judgment that it should have known that the shift in grades would have been dramatic.
* The OCEAC says A-level grades will be published accurately and on time next week, despite earlier computer problems. Ron McLone, the chief executive dismissed press speculation as "scaremongering".