Mark of shame;Exam appeals

11th December 1998 at 00:00
An exam board's refusal to come clean over a marking discrepancy that cost pupils A-level grades and university places is nothing short of a national disgrace, says grammar school head Tony Tuckwell (right). Elaine Williams reports on his fight and wider calls for an appeal system that bites

Tony Tuckwell is like a dog with a bone. He's not going to let go until he gets what he wants. And what he wants is justice for his Essex pupils. He has taken their case to the highest authority and lost but he's not prepared to let the matter rest without proof. Proven, he says, their case is not.

The matter in question is an appeal against examination grades.

Mr Tuckwell is the hands-on, inspirational head of King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford; impassioned, paternalistic, out to do the very best for his students. For the past year he has been battling his way through the scandalously slow, labyrinthian procedures of appeal after his English A-level students suffered an inexplicable collapse in grades in August 1997.

Through dogged persistence and a refusal to accept anything other than an open, full and judicious review, the school finally reached the independent examinations appeal body. In September this year, 13 months after starting the quest, the school lost. But Mr Tuckwell hasn't finished. The gristle between his locked jaw is what he calls the "educational feudalism" of the examination boards, and he wants to shake it apart.

When Mr Tuckwell realised the extent of the disaster which had hit his English students that August he launched an immediate inquiry and cancelled his holiday. Over the past three years the school has achieved 70 per cent As and Bs in all subjects at A-level but English was the jewel in its crown. In 1996, 91 per cent of pupils sitting A-levels in the subject had achieved an A or a B, but one year later, only 33 per cent achieved the two top grades. Only two out of the 43 received an A compared with 20 of the previous year's 34 entrants.

Convinced the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council had got it wrong, the head immediately shelled out pound;800 for a re-mark on three of the four English papers. He assured pupils he would fight on their behalf, and hoped for a swift response.

He didn't get it. Pupils missed their first-choice university place, and one of his outstanding English scholars missed a place at Cambridge, having scored a D on his Shakespeare paper. This, Mr Tuckwell says, had been marked by a rogue examiner: "It led to depressed scores, affecting schools throughout the United Kingdom."

In November, the OCEAC acknowledged to King Edward that in a sample of 53 papers re-marked (representing 40 per cent of the total) two-thirds of the original marks were wrong. Six overall marks were raised by one grade. The school demanded and expected a re-mark of the remaining papers, given the degree of error. This was not forthcoming. "This is where things started to get nasty," says Mr Tuckwell. With some help from publicity on BBC 2's Just One Chance the school did eventually get a re-mark - in February 1998, by which time the board had also lost three scripts. It pronounced that the other 60 per cent of papers had been marked correctly.

Fired by incredulity, Mr Tuckwell carried on pushing and secured another re-mark in May, after a board appeal hearing. Again nothing was changed. Eventually in September 1998, the school's case was heard by the Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations, housed at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The IAASE panned the board for its grade review procedures before the 1997 results were published; for losing the school's grade forecasts; for delays in the initial re-mark; for administrative chaos and for poor communication. The panel acknowledged the OCEAC was going through a merger, and criticised it for failing to manage the problems of reorganisation. But it believed the final mark given to 40 of the King Edward candidates was fair, and that scripts were marked in line with the national standard. The school's appeal for a further re-mark was disallowed.

Mr Tuckwell says the IAASE's judgment was astonishing, given its observation that at no time did the OCEAC furnish evidence from the scripts as to "why pupils received the marks they did".

This is the marrow in Mr Tuckwell's bone and the reason he has appealed directly to Education Secretary David Blunkett. He wants to see the scripts. As the school's 1998 results for A-level English were up, and on a par with the 1996 results, he has also asked the board for pupils' English examinations scripts from the past three years "so we can understand the criteria and why we were so apparently incompetent in 1997".

The board has refused both requests on the grounds that it is "not in the best interest of candidates". Mr Tuckwell is now asking his 1997 candidates to confirm in writing that in their opinion the withholding of scripts is not in their best interests.

Given the 1998 results, Mr Tuckwell is particularly angry that during the final hearing the board argued that King Edward pupils had been over-marked in 1996 and that the 1997 marks were more in line with national standards. In 1996 a much-publicised scandal had seen five examiners sacked and the chief examiner resign after scrutiny from the former School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. It was alleged they had inflated A-level results by up to two grades - giving "bonus marks" - on the basis of schools' predicted scores. The examiners vehemently denied these charges and were vindicated at an industrial tribunal earlier this year, when the board settled out of court, paid compensation and verified that the examiners had indeed been following established procedures and protocol.

John Saunders, the former chief examiner, says he resigned before the SCAA scrutiny because he could see he was "sitting on an administrative disaster" at a particularly sensitive time, when SCAA was asking boards to align grading systems between modular and traditional A-levels. Three boards had been merged into the OCEAC "without the support and sufficient administration to see us through", he says. "Scripts and marks were lost, the computer was assigning the wrong grades to the wrong candidates. Whole centres failed to appear on the entry."

Before his resignation, Dr Saunders spent 600 hours in grade review meetings trying to sort out the mess. He remembers reviewing grades for the Shakespeare paper of King Edward, which had been "poorly" marked by a new examiner. This examiner, says Dr Saunders, was obviously more impressed by "length and pedantic illustration" than the "articulate, precise and elegant" responses that featured in many of the Chelmsford papers. He recalls raising grades from a fail to an A.

He is incensed that even though he and his team were vindicated, the OCEAC has once more raised the issue of the 1996 "bonus marks" in its defence of errors in 1997. Mr Tuckwell accuses the board of "sheltering behind iron curtains" and is appalled there is no power in the land that can force their hand. He says: "If my kids have done badly, I want someone to prove it, but the evidence has not been seen by a third party.

"It is the only quasi-judicial procedure I know where the evidence remains in the hands of the accused and is controlled and assessed by the accused. That is a denial of natural and procedural justice."

If he needed inspiration to continue the fight, Mr Tuckwell could observe the success of St George's, Weybridge, an independent school in Surrey, which won its case against the OCEAC at the IAASE in October over grades of the very same English exam. Auden Witter, St George's head of English, has secured a re-mark of the Shakespeare scripts of the 60 candidates the school entered in 1997, after arguing successfully that the OCEAC's procedures were faulty and its marking unreliable.

Half of the school's candidates had dropped a grade because of surprisingly low marks in the Shakespeare paper.

Mr Witter was perhaps more successful than King Edward because he had the benefit of the examiner's report on the Shakespeare paper, which he had requested at the time of the exam. The report showed inconsistencies between grades and comments, and that the examiner had reduced marking to a crude mathematical formula in a way that penalised outstanding candidates.

Mr Witter is particularly aggrieved by the case of one of his pupils, Christopher Duggan, a literary scholar who had hoped to go to Cambridge after a foundation year in art. Christopher's work was criticised in that report and in a subsequent report accompanying the board's re-mark, for being short, unsubstantiated, fragmentary and plodding. By contrast, an examiner's report on one of his other English papers praised him for writing in a lively, often original way, handling critical terms with ease and assurance. "Would that they all wrote as economically," the examiner recorded. Mr Witter says: "That boy is not now studying English, and that is a crime. He had a literary gift."

Moreover, even though his case has been upheld and a re-mark of the Shakespeare paper required, Mr Witter is not confident that justice will be done as the process is once again to be carried out by the board, albeit by a previously uninvolved senior examiner, accompanied by an independent observer - a senior examiner from another examining body. The IAASE, which expressed lack of confidence in the board's marking procedures, has no power to ensure the paper is marked by a separate and independent body. Given that this paper has already been re-marked inconsistently five times, and that the marks of previous examiners remain on the script. Mr Witter remains sceptical.

Richard Fawcett, would say he is right to be so. Mr Fawcett, headteacher at Thurston Upper School, Bury St Edmunds, was the Secondary Heads Association representative at a recent meeting with the QCA, which is conducting a review into exam appeal procedures. Mr Fawcett has taken three cases to the IAASE. Although two were upheld, no grades were changed. He says: "We want an appeal system that has teeth rather than dentures. Exam boards must be accountable, and not laws unto themselves."

OCEAC, now subsumed with the vocational awarding body, the Royal Society of Arts, into the OCR (Oxford, Cambridge amp; RSA Examinations), has had a bad two years, which can partly be put down to a particularly complicated series of mergers. Problems with a new computer system this year meant schools failed to receive exam papers on time and had to have them faxed on the day. The board also incurred the wrath of schools and the QCA when, without notice, it withdrew uneconomic syllabuses in the summer, replacing them with others, for courses that were to be taught in September. Moreover, administrative inefficiencies seem to persist. An A-level classics examiner was particularly aggrieved after having to spend a great deal of time on the phone chasing the board for vital information. Support, she says, was "haphazard." Such stories undermine schools' confidence in a board's competence and accuracy.

But the OCR is not alone in incurring challenges from schools. According to the QCA, the past five years have seen a 50 per cent increase in school inquiries over boards' grades and procedures, although only a small percentage reaches appeal and no more than 12 arrive at the IAASE each year. While the IAASE can pass a case on to the QCA if it is unhappy with a board's response, it has only done so once.

Mr Tuckwell believes schools, which are ever more accountable, are no longer willing to put up with the autocracy of exam boards. Since the publicity surrounding his case, he has received letters from schools that have come to grief with other boards. As schools now manage their own budgets, he believes they have gained the confidence and have the money up front (it can cost hundreds if not thousands) to make challenges. He says: "In education there is only one person who deserves primary interest and that's the pupil. At A-level especially, the precision of grades influences what happens to pupils. That needs to be taken into account in ensuring proper openness, so justice is seen to be done.

"As heads we are accountable to everybody and for everything. Itis offensive and improper that examination boards maintain a screen of secrecy."

The QCA will advise the Education Secretary this month after reviewing exam board appeals procedures, regulations and codes of practice. Its recommendations include: * from 1999 the IAASE will be replaced by a body with a "wider remit"; * from 1999 schools will have a right to candidates' scripts once they reach an exam board's appeal stages but not duringan initial inquiry; * the appeals process will be speeded up; * board appeal panels will have independent members; * proper notice will be given to schools and colleges if syllabuses are withdrawn.

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