Exam board animosity reaches boiling point

21st September 2012 at 01:00
'Frightened' AQA ducks out of moderator meetings at schools

An exam board at the centre of the GCSE grading controversy has axed meetings seen as crucial to avoiding a repeat of this summer's problems, because it wants its employees to avoid "very tricky discussions" with angry teachers.

AQA's cancellation of what would have been compulsory sessions for every school using its GCSE English course comes despite Ofqual's push for better guidance for teachers on the troubled qualification.

Insiders at the board say the decision has made their "blood boil" and claim that a "frightened" AQA, which has the majority of the GCSE English market, is "shooting itself in the foot".

The news came as an alliance of about 100 organisations including teaching unions, local authorities, academy chains and about 40 schools began a landmark legal action against Ofqual and the Edexcel and AQA exam boards, challenging pupils' unexpectedly low grades.

Ofqual's inquiry into the GCSE English grading controversy reported that AQA had found "evidence of significant teacher over-marking" of controlled assessment units.

The watchdog's report last month said exam boards would review the advice and guidance they gave to schools about the standards required in GCSE English. Ofqual also noted that schools and the boards "could have shared a better understanding" of the qualification's grade boundaries.

But in a letter written five days after Ofqual's report was published, AQA announced it was cancelling meetings with schools that would have allowed it to improve that understanding.

Sent to moderators who check teacher marking of GCSE English controlled assessment, the letter begins by acknowledging the "controversy" caused by this year's results and the many "very difficult conversations" AQA has had with schools since.

"In the light of this we have decided that we will not hold compulsory face-to-face standardising meetings this autumn," the correspondence, seen by TES, continues.

As teachers would "understandably" have used the meetings to talk about this year's results, the board explains, "we don't think that it would be fair to you (the moderator) to have to deal with these sorts of potentially very tricky discussions".

The decision has angered some AQA moderators, who say the meetings, held every November to explain the qualification's grading, would have been one of the best ways to avoid another controversy in 2013. "This is AQA shooting themselves in the foot because these standardising meetings have been very important," one experienced moderator told TES. "They have cancelled obviously because they are frightened. They don't want to face the people who are rightly cross about this."

An AQA spokesperson said: "We recognise that teachers are very concerned about GCSE English and we are in direct contact with them about this and meeting many face to face. We thought this approach would be better than attempting to address concerns in the regular teacher standardisation meetings. As a result, we moved (the meetings) online, which we had already planned to do because it is more accessible to teachers."

AQA, Edexcel and Ofqual were last night due to be sent formal notice of legal action against the GCSE English grades and are being given 10 days to respond.

The alliance behind the action wants GCSEs taken in June to be "urgently regraded" in line with January's standards.

Its "pre-action" letter states: "It is inconceivable that two cohorts of students enrolled for the same course in the same academic year, who have undertaken the same work and invested the same effort, and who will be competing in future for the same opportunities, should be subjected to such radically different standards of assessment and award."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said: "The statistics are opaque but the moral issue is simple: a group of young people have been made to pay a devastating price for the mistakes of others. This must be rectified swiftly."

See pages 22-23


The Church of England has criticised the GCSE marking crisis, describing the "great distress" caused to vulnerable pupils in a letter to education secretary Michael Gove.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, who chairs the CofE's national board of education, wrote that the "debacle" had been "a considerable affront to natural justice and efforts to raise the aspirations of pupils from less favoured backgrounds".

He asked for reassurances that changes to GCSEs would enable pupils from poorer backgrounds to flourish.

Revd Jan Ainsworth, the CofE's chief education officer, said the shift in the CD grade boundary had been "exceptional". "We are amazed at the loss of talent that has been the result," she said.

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