Pressure for an independent inquiry into this summer's controversial GCSE English grades intensified this week, as a former head of Ofqual argued that exam failures should be subject to external investigation.
The call from Isabel Nisbet, chief executive of the qualifications regulator until 2011, came as an alliance of teaching unions, academy chains, local authorities and more than 100 schools met to decide whether to proceed with a legal challenge to the grades.
An independent inquiry into the very similar 2002 A-level scandal led to the regrading of nearly 10,000 papers.
Ofqual has led the only official inquiry so far into this year's problems and is following up its initial findings with a report on "the lessons to be learned", expected by the end of the month.
Ms Nisbet agrees that the regulator or the authority in charge is best placed to "find out, as quickly as possible, what happened and in how many cases, and whether any immediate remedial action is required" straight after an exams failure. But she argues that an independent figure should then step in to conduct a more in-depth investigation "to establish why the problems occurred and who was to blame for them".
"In my view, this ... is normally best served by an inquiry which has credibility as independent of any of the organisations which might bear responsibility," Ms Nisbet, now working for Cambridge International Examinations, wrote in a paper published this week. Her comments follow the release of emails last week showing that exam boards Edexcel and WJEC were concerned that Ofqual was too involved with the GCSE grading to be able investigate it.
Asked last month whether the regulator was effectively investigating itself, Ofqual chair Amanda Spielman told MPs: "The issues are mainly around what has happened in exam boards and in schools, not around what has happened in Ofqual. We are not simply looking at ourselves."
The only other current possibility of independent scrutiny of the affair comes from the Commons Education Select Committee. But it has not yet decided whether to hold more hearings on the matter and will not do so until Monday at the earliest.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) sent an open letter to committee chair Graham Stuart this week calling for a full independent investigation and "urgent action" from Ofqual. The watchdog has reported "evidence of significant teacher over-marking" of controlled assessment in GCSE English. But the ASCL says many schools affected by shifts in grades had their marking praised by exam boards.
Schools, furious that many thousands of pupils have been left with grades they argue are wrong, increasingly view the courts as their only means of redress. Ofqual last week responded to an official threat of legal action from the alliance, vowing to "rigorously defend" its decisions. Exam boards Edexcel and AQA also responded by standing by their grades.
The alliance is now expected to apply for a judicial review of the shift in GCSE English grade boundaries between January and June, arguing that pupils who received their grades this summer were treated with "conspicuous unfairness".
Ms Nisbet also warned of the danger of the "rushed implementation" of new exams, noting that "top-down system changes in education take at least 15 years to settle in", whereas most politicians want improvements "within a four-year period of office".
Last week Ms Nisbet's successor at Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, revealed that she has concerns about the government's timetable for implementing its GCSE replacement, English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs). Ms Stacey later raised fears about the single exam board franchising model at the heart of the EBC plans (see panel, right).
The select committee's Mr Stuart, a Conservative MP, is also concerned about the EBC timetable and last week called on ministers to "slow down", warning that a "lack of coherent thinking" and impossible timetables would result in a "mess".
It has emerged that Ofqual has serious concerns about the central concept behind the government's proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) - that each should be offered by a single exam board.
Having told independent school heads that there were "risks" in reforming the exams market, chief regulator Glenys Stacey last week spelt out her worries to Association of School and College Leaders members.
"Monopoly provision - as is proposed - makes effective regulation extremely difficult: it can be harder to secure both standards and value for money," she said. "The sole exam board has all the cards, all the information about what is going on, and we are reliant on them to deliver. And there are no other exam boards we can compare them with, and test whether they are doing the right thing."