MPs blame ministers for A-level regrading fiasco

18th April 2003 at 01:00
Long-awaited report clears ministers of 'fixing' results, but attacks them for rushing in reforms without proper trials. Warwick Mansell and Emily Clark report

THE Government was responsible for last year's A-level regrading fiasco because it launched complex changes to the qualification without proper trials, backbench MPs concluded this week.

Ministers, not exam boards or the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, should shoulder much of the blame for the events of last summer, the Commons Education and Skills Select Committee said.

In a long-awaited report about the controversy over late changes to marks, the committee rejected suggestions of "grade fixing" - that ministers or the QCA had forced boards to change students' grades.

But it said ministers had put pressure on the QCA to launching the Curriculum 2000 reforms to A-levels without adequate trials. The result was that schools and exam boards were left in doubt about the standard of the qualification.

However, the QCA was not completely absolved. The report suggests that it was partly responsible for last-minute grade changes because an exam board had felt pressured by the watchdog into "suppressing grade inflation".

Almost 2,000 students had their grades changed last autumn following an investigation by Mike Tomlinson, a former chief inspector, into last summer's events.

The scandal contributed to the resignation last year of Estelle Morris as Education Secretary and the sacking of Sir William Stubbs as chairman of the QCA.

Difficulties centred on how high the standards for the new qualifications, including the new AS-level, should be set. For the first time last year, A-level grades were produced by combining students' marks in AS papers, usually taken in the lower sixth, and A2 papers in the upper sixth.

Ron McLone, chief executive of the OCR exam board, who admitted changing grades at the last minute, accused the QCA of failing to spell out how difficult the A2 should be.

But the committee argued that the problems would not have arisen had Curriculum 2000 been properly piloted. It said that the QCA should have provided clearer written guidance on expected standards to exam boards, schools and colleges. What had really been needed were graded examples of students' work, which could have been provided in a pilot.

The report said: "The DfES presented a timetable to implement Curriculum 2000 which was not properly thought-through and placed considerable pressure on all those in the exam system, from the QCA to students themselves."

Afterwards, Barry Sheerman, chairman of the committee, said: "It's the Secretary of State we hold to account. But... our investigation, found no great dramatic error.

"In the enthusiasm of ministers to get Curriculum 2000 up and running, they were pushing the department, the QCA and examining boards a little too fast."

The report said last year's events called the QCA's independence from Government into question, and recommended that the watchdog now report directly to Parliament, rather than ministers.

The report criticised media coverage of "fixing" of grades as "lurid" and "almost hysterical". The controversy had ultimately resulted only in "some minor changes to the allocation of a minority of grade boundaries".

* Sixth-formers could spend an extra eight hours a week in lessons under a baccalaureate system, the man investigating launching an English "bac" has said.

Mike Tomlinson said French versions of the qualification had 28 hours a week teaching time, against the 20 hours typically offered in English schools teaching A-levels.

But he told a London University Institute of Education conference that English schools may not need to increase teaching time.

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