It's time for Gove to make his mind up
Something went badly wrong with last summer's English GCSE results, and many C-grade pupils were awarded D grades that they did not deserve. This was unfair, according to the ruling handed down last week at the High Court - but not illegal.
Throughout this debacle, exams watchdog Ofqual has lacked leadership and integrity. It has lost the confidence of schools. It has never acknowledged the scale of the problem, disingenuously claiming to have got it all slightly wrong in the January exams and then to have applied the correct standards in June. I do not believe this version of events. Schools that enter pupils for exams only in the summer know that a much higher bar was set in 2012 than in previous years.
Ofqual in part explained the fall in English grades by the exodus of higher attaining pupils to the IGCSE but, strangely, grade boundary movements were targeted at foundation - not higher - paper candidates. And then in November came Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey's extraordinary claim that some schools had marked oral and controlled assignments "too generously", but that it wasn't teachers' fault and Ofqual was not going to do anything about it.
Ofqual claims not to understand why some schools suffered catastrophic drops in results while others were less affected. Some schools could ill afford the impact of even one of Ofqual's decisions. However, if you took the AQA paper, entered pupils only in the summer, did not push your controlled assignment grades outrageously and had a large number of pupils on the C-D borderline sitting the foundation paper, then you and your pupils bore the full brunt of all Ofqual's failings.
It is clear that schools were under tremendous pressure in 2011-12 to improve results, from Ofsted's new framework for inspection and from the Department for Education's demand that at least 40 per cent of pupils in every school gain five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. Schools responded by working even harder with pupils on the C-D borderline, delivering more teacher time, support, encouragement and revision sessions to help them reach their potential. Schools worked at the very limit of the support they could give these young people.
As a result, so many pupils had been awarded C grades in January that by the time some pupils came to take the exam in the summer, it was clear to the exam boards that pass rates were set to rise significantly in English. At this point, as the correspondence shows, Ofqual instructed the exam boards to lower the grades of pupils who sat the exam in the summer in order to balance the books. And the exam boards were obliged to comply, even when they believed that pupils deserved their C grades.
It is the job of Ofqual to ensure that rigorous standards are applied consistently and fairly across all schools. It needs to abandon its crude methodology for predicting the total number of C grades to be awarded each year and stop effectively instructing exam boards on how many C grades there "ought" to be. Instead, it needs to clearly identify what a C grade represents and ensure that any pupil who meets this standard is awarded the grade they deserve, no matter which exam board's papers they take or when they sit them.
Above all, the DfE must stop facing both ways on standards. On the one hand, the Department is committed to a relentless and admirable drive for school improvement; on the other, it is paranoid that any rise in overall pass rates will be derided as so-called "grade inflation". As schools do improve and as pupils do achieve more in their education, exam results will rise. We need a system that recognises this, otherwise the unfairness and injustice of last summer will be repeated again and again.
The injustice will be more sophisticated in the future, of course. Perhaps the future for all subjects will be rather like the present in maths: marking differences that are less noticeable, less obviously anomalous and more evenly and thinly spread across pupils and schools, across exam boards and across different papers. It will also be quite legal, as we have learned this week. But it will still be unfair on pupils and it will fail to demonstrate the improvement in standards that education secretary Michael Gove so obviously wants.
The first rule of leadership is to face one way and be clear about future direction. With his recent announcements on the role of the inspectorate, Sir Michael Wilshaw has nailed Ofsted's colours to the mast of school improvement. Meanwhile, back at Ofqual, too much school improvement can only mean grade inflation. For all our sakes, both these bodies need to hear from Gove which way they are meant to be facing.
Nick Weller is executive principal of Dixons Academies and chief executive of the Bradford Partnership. He takes up the chair of the Independent Academies Association next month.