Notes on two scandals

5th October 2012 at 01:00
The GCSE grading fiasco is remarkably similar to a controversy 10 years ago. But while the 2002 A-level furore caused a political explosion, now the key players are closing ranks in an attempt to minimise the fallout. William Stewart reports

There is uproar from schools as results from a new set of qualifications are published for the first time. Grades in many secondaries are dramatically lower than expectations and bizarrely at odds with other qualifications. Teachers with many years' experience of judging ability are left confused, dismayed and then furious by results for their hard-working pupils that seem to defy all logic. A media storm erupts as angry heads warn that young people's futures are being jeopardised and demand regrades.

It emerges that exam boards had been told by their regulator to ensure that results were in line with previous years and to prevent grade inflation as new modular qualifications were introduced. Some schools suspect involvement at a higher level and accuse ministers of political interference. It is revealed that experienced examiners had their judgements overruled. But the regulator conducts an initial inquiry that clears exam boards and blames teachers. Heads demand a full independent inquiry and threaten legal action.

These are all events that will be familiar to anyone who has kept abreast of this year's GCSE English grading controversy. But they are also an exact description of another exam grading fiasco that blew up exactly 10 years ago.

The A-level grading scandal of 2002 triggered the sacking of Sir William Stubbs, chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the former regulator, contributed to the resignation of then education secretary Estelle Morris and led to thousands of exam regrades.

Many heads will be hoping for a repeat this time round - on the final point at least. Whether they will get their wish was still in the balance at the time of writing. And as the weeks go by, the two grading scandals are starting to diverge. But comparisons with the events of a decade ago can offer important insights into the reasons behind this year's controversy.

Back in October 2002, Ken Boston, who had taken over as QCA chief executive just after the grading storm broke, pledged: "The difficult and confusing period we are passing through must never be allowed to happen again."

Astoundingly, it has. That may, in part, be testament to the incredible rate of change among those running education in England. The constant turnover of education secretaries - five since Morris' departure - is already well documented. And we have had a change of government separating the two controversies. Exam board management has also been far from stable, with at least two changes of chief executive for each of England's big three boards in the past decade.

Transformation at the regulator level has been even more extreme, going beyond mere staff changes to the replacement of the QCA by Ofqual in 2010. The new regulator is not yet three years old, but it is already on to its second chief executive and second chair - neither of whom has previous experience in public exams.

The establishment of Ofqual also involved a move to Coventry and a big loss of expertise. Staff were reluctant to relocate to the Midlands from the QCA's old central London headquarters and less than a quarter of the new regulator's staff had experience with the previous one. Ofqual acknowledged as recently as March that it needed more expertise.

The shake-up also seems to have left an organisation suffering from institutional amnesia. Ofqual identified the difficulties with modular qualifications that lie at the heart of this summer's grading controversy, and indeed the 2002 one, in a report three years ago. The watchdog even came up with at least one workable solution, contrary to the impression given by an erroneous statement about "myths" recently published on its website. But as TES revealed in August, nothing was done.

The similarity of two grading controversies a decade apart is a source of potential embarrassment for those in charge today. Michael Gove, the education secretary, tried to deflect it last month, telling MPs that today's problems are different from those of 2002 because of "a confusion of roles" in the QCA, which was "responsible for generating the syllabus for qualifications and also regulating the qualifications".

But major change triggered by the end of the QCA was more to do with separating responsibility for the curriculum and assessment. As far as exams are concerned, Ofqual's role today remains very similar to that of its predecessor 10 years ago. And as this summer's events have unravelled, both appear to have acted in very similar ways.

In 2002, exam boards were told by the QCA to ensure that they used the previous year's A-level results as a "very strong guide" when deciding grades for the new modular qualifications.

Ofqual's interim report on this year's problems made no mention of its own role in them, and concluded that June's controversial grades were correct and set by examiners "using their best professional judgement, taking into account all of the evidence available to them".

In fact, as letters since obtained by TES show, as in 2002 the regulator did directly intervene to ensure that new modular qualifications did not lead to big increases in grades.

The reaction of schools has also been virtually identical. Like this summer, heads in 2002 were threatening legal action before the regulator had even published its initial report into the affair. And in both years, schools called for an independent inquiry, complaining that the regulator could not investigate itself.

The political response to those calls is where the paths start to diverge dramatically. In 2002, Morris ordered an inquiry the day after schools made their demand. Mike Tomlinson, the former Ofsted chief inspector, was immediately commissioned to head an investigation that by 14 October had led to the regrading of 9,800 exam papers.

This time, there has been no such inquiry. Gove has argued that it would be "quite wrong" for him to appoint an "outside body" to "second guess" the decisions of the regulator. Schools will have to make do with the inquiry being carried out by the Commons Education Select Committee. But it is a far from ideal solution for those who feel wronged by the exams system.

The decision to extend the committee's deliberations beyond a couple of exploratory hearings was made only belatedly, and early statements from Graham Stuart, committee chairman, broadly backed Ofqual's position.

Speaking soon after problems first emerged, the Conservative MP said: "Is this some sort of catastrophic system-wide error? The answer is, `no it isn't'."

Having accepted that a longer inquiry was needed, Stuart has gone on to cast doubt on his own committee's ability to carry it out. Discussing whether or not Ofqual could have averted this year's problems, the MP said: "That is the question that we can ask about, but we have issues as to whether we have the technical or data-processing ability to find answers to it."

Even if it does acquire that ability, time is not on its side. The committee members will not even return to Parliament until 15 October, a day after the 2002 victims had their grades changed. Parliamentary inquiries can be ponderous and even if this one is quick when it finally resumes, it is not certain whether the committee would have the necessary power or leverage to prompt a regrading - assuming that it wants one.

In the meantime, schools and pupils must place their hopes on legal action, which their lawyers estimate has no better than a 60 per cent chance of success, and which their 2002 counterparts had no need to resort to.

Shared interests

So why are things so different 10 years later? The central reason seems to be that the key players have stuck together. In 2002, the regulator publicly criticised at least one exam board and the government, while exam boards sought to distance themselves from each other and ministers were accused of conducting a whispering campaign against the QCA and meddling in the independent inquiry. The result: major collateral damage as both Stubbs and Morris went.

This time round, the fates of ministers, the regulator and the exam boards are more closely entwined than ever. Ofqual and ministers have consistently and categorically denied all suggestions that government had any involvement in GCSE grading this year and nothing has emerged to contradict them.

But there is evidence to link ministers to Ofqual's "comparable outcomes" approach to tackling grade inflation, a strategy that explains why the regulator insisted that GCSE English grade boundaries were significantly toughened up between January and June. Gove may not have directly called for the approach, but he has not been shy about publicly speaking out against grade inflation.

More to the point, TES understands that the Department for Education was very clear to Glenys Stacey about the importance of maintaining standards over time when it appointed her to head up Ofqual last year.

Her predecessor as chief regulator, Kathleen Tattersall, although also concerned with standards, was seen to be "much more of a standard bearer for fairness and equity" by insiders at the watchdog. Indeed it was Tattersall who, in a previous role as chief executive at the AQA exam board, during the run-up to the 2002 grading controversy wrote to the QCA asking for assurances that boards were not being expected to disregard pupils' actual performance in the efforts to prevent grade inflation.

But the Labour Party member left her position as Ofqual chair within weeks of the coalition taking power in 2010, and Isabel Nisbet, former chief executive at the watchdog, was not long behind.

So the Ofqual that exists today is the Ofqual that Gove wanted and any serious flak that it receives about this year's controversy could easily rebound on the education secretary. His motives for backing his regulator may be completely sincere; nevertheless, the fact remains that failing to give his backing would risk a damaging political own goal.

As far as the exam boards are concerned, we know that in at least one case their professional judgement was overruled by Ofqual. But they also have very important reasons for not speaking out about what went on.

The potential loss of business from schools angry about lower than expected results pales into insignificance beside another threat that boards were well aware of when they finalised this summer's grades.

By then, Gove's plans for GCSE replacements, each to be provided by a single exam board that competed for a franchise, were already well publicised. That franchise system poses a huge potential risk to all awarding bodies, but especially to AQA, the board that, as the market leader in GCSE English, has been at the centre of this year's controversy.

Insiders at AQA believe that if the board fails to win the English franchise alongside either maths or science, it will find it very difficult to continue to exist on its current scale - the situation is "business critical".

They say the board is particularly vulnerable because it enjoys such a large share of the current core subject GCSE business that will be franchised out. It also lacks the safety nets enjoyed by its rivals. OCR is part of a wider exam board with a big international business, while Edexcel has a big vocational business and is part of education giant Pearson. The franchises will be awarded by Ofqual and the Department for Education.

Ofqual says it did not need to write to AQA about its controversial GCSE English grading decisions, the implication being that they were the board's own.

There is, it should be stressed, no evidence that AQA did anything other than try to deliver fair and accurate results. But there was a powerful corporate incentive to keep internal qualms about the toughening up of grade boundaries between January and June under wraps.

Equally, Edexcel's decision not to publicly criticise Ofqual even after it emerged that the regulator had overruled the board's judgements would in the long term seem politically astute.

So while an exam grading controversy triggered a political explosion in 2002, it is in everyone's interests that its near replica 10 years later quietly fizzles out. Everyone, that is, except the teenagers left with D grades and their schools.

"We got it right educationally and wrong politically," one big political player from 2002 told TES. "This time, it is the other way round. It is dishonourable."

Pupils and their teachers can only nod and agree.

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