Exam grade watchdog under fire

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Linda Blackburne reports on concerns over the functioning of the Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations. Is the four-year-old Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations an upright example of accountability and justice? Or is it a "toothless tiger" created as a sop to parent power ?

Such questions have dogged the fledgling appeals authority since the Education Secretary set it up "to ensure that candidates who use the examination system and their parents, schools and colleges are satisfied that the grades awarded are as fair and accurate as they can be".

The authority has also been accused of being dominated by independent schools, though its supporters believe that it is simply not yet well-known enough to attract cases from a wider base.

Ironically, even though the authority was set up to help parents as well as schools and colleges, parents cannot make direct appeals to it - they have to persuade the school to act on their behalf. Some schools and parents also would like to be able to see exam scripts which are the subject of an appeal, although others believe this would throw the system into chaos.

The authority's appeals are indeed dominated by the independent sector or schools with independent characteristics, such as a grant-maintained school with high-achieving pupils. Very few further education colleges appeal.

Only 577,000 (7 per cent) of the 8,334,000 pupils in England and Wales are at independent schools. Yet, in the authority's last report, published in November 1994, four out of seven of the appeals summarised were from the independent sector. It's a similar count for the three previous reports: in 1993, for example, two schools were independents, three GM, one a sixth-form college and two LEA schools.

Questions from exam boards about the independent sector's domination prompted the appeals authority itself to scrutinise the figures. Between September 1994 and February 1995, it says, 19 out of 68 inquiries (27.9 per cent) were from independents. To date, this year's figures show 50 per cent of appeals are from the independent sector.

The approximate Pounds 20 cost per candidate for an initial appeal to an exam board plus the Pounds 50 fee to the IAASE will no doubt deter many schools, especially as some appeal on behalf of several candidates. But some people also believe confidence is a key issue. Malcolm Noble, headmaster of Bexleyheath School in Kent (see below), wrote to an education magazine in December last year, saying: "I am not surprised that heads in the state sector appear to be less than confident about appeals. Having followed one through at A-level, I should hesitate to advise anyone else to follow the same track, (although) there was no doubt as to the seriousness with which the board and the IAASE approached the appeal.

"We did not have access to marked papers. We had to accept that a successful outcome did not necessarily lead to an upgrade. I was expected to present the case, against a battery of administrators and subject specialists from the board."

Geoffrey Mills, head of The Latymer grant-maintained school in Edmonton, is convinced that he lost his school's 1992 appeal because he presented the case himself. The following year, a barrister, who was a friend of a local education authority solicitor and parent-governor at The Latymer, presented a second case and won (TES December 2, 1994).

The appeals authority has now recommended against lawyers presenting school cases, but Mr Mills said: "My view used to be you shouldn't challenge examination results. They are very reliable. These people are colleagues of ours - they don't get it wrong. But then you challenge and you find that a lot is wrong."

He strongly believes that the boards have an unfair advantage because in general schools are not allowed to see the scripts. There should be a mechanism, he says, for showing the papers to schools and parents. That mechanism might consist of the boards weighing the evidence, deciding whether the case merited showing the papers, and a rule allowing schools to object to the appeals authority if boards refuse to show papers.

Peter Clare, acting secretary to the Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations, refutes the suggestion that the boards have an unfair advantage because they see the papers and the appellants do not. The basis of any hearing, he said, was concerned with procedures. Examination marking was so complicated that no one outside the system could pass a judgment on how the script had been marked, he said.

Meanwhile, the appeals authority has a meeting with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority this month to discuss the amount of parental interest in exam appeals and whether parents should be given more power. IAASE would like to know how many parents' inquiries are taken on by schools but is finding it impossible to collate the information, partly because one in two parents prefers to remain anonymous when they ring the appeals authority.

Brian Arthur, secretary to the IAASE, said it was not known how many parents made complaints to exam boards and schools but went no further. And Government interest in giving parents more power had cooled off, he said.

Over the past two years, he has noticed that schools have become more preoccupied with the A*, A and B grades than the Cs and Ds of the IAASE's first two years.

He believes it is right that schools are becoming more interested in the range of grades and are concerned about how high ability is rewarded. He dismisses the suggestion that state schools lack the confidence to make an appeal, saying: "I could name a maintained school which is just as adept at getting through the system."

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