Any experienced head of department knows results day can be a nightmare. The worst problem is the sobbing student, often accompanied by the angry parent brandishing tear-stained results slips, exclaiming that there is no way he or she could have got their sub-standard score and that the examiner must have got it wrong.
At this point, some teachers may suggest that the candidate should apply to the examination board to have the paper re-marked. At my school, a large comprehensive in outer London, candidates have to pay to have their script assessed again the school simply cannot afford the cost of re-marks. This is the case in most schools. Re-marking is a very expensive business. Depending upon the board and the exam, fees for GCSE re-marks are usually pound;23 or more while for A-levels they are pound;35 or more. And this is just the cost of having a script re-assessed for the first time. If a candidate is unhappy with that and asks for their script to be looked at for a second time by a more senior examiner, the fee rises yet again, usually to pound;78. If, after that, a candidate still isn't happy, then he or she may have the script scrutinised by the independent Examination Appeals Board, and this will cost in the region of pound;130. If the mark of a script is changed, then the fees are waived. Even so, it is quite nerve-wracking to gamble all this money on a mark being changed.
Year on year, the demand for re-marks has increased by thousands. In 2003, 38,440 GCSE scripts were re-marked. Last year, the figure was 62,397. That's an increase of 23,957. I expect that this year the figure will be even higher. Savvy and wealthy pupils, parents and schools have noticed that while the number of candidates asking for re-marks has ballooned, the percentage of candidates having their marks changed has remained roughly the same. In 2003, some 25 per cent of students just over 10,000 candidates had their grades changed. In 2006, the figure was more or less the same at 23 per cent, with 14,197 candidates having their grades altered. That means exam marking has either become a lot worse or vigilant candidates have unearthed a great deal more sloppy marking. These statistics give every incentive to a disgruntled candidate to contest a mark if they have the money.
The only way to stop the rot is to ban individual re-marks. The system now benefits wealthier students, who are increasingly milking the system, playing the re-mark lottery in the hope of a better grade. There needs to be a much fairer system. With A-levels, candidates need to secure places at universities earlier, perhaps gaining places with their AS results and so avoiding the stampede for re-marks if they fail to get the right grades for their chosen institutions. With all the exams, the Examination Appeals Board (EAB) should step in much earlier if there has been slipshod marking. Currently, the EAB listens to very few cases.
As it stands, a partisan inquiry into a batch of scripts, conducted by the exam board itself, only happens if a number of individual scripts have had their marks altered. Schools or parents have had to pay a great deal of money to the boards before an inquiry into a group of scripts is launched. This mostly never happens, and poor examiners are not rooted out.
We have a chronically unfair system in which everyone benefits except the economically disadvantaged. Exam boards rake in the money from the re-marks and wealthy students take a punt on getting their grades boosted. Meanwhile, the rest are stuck with their grade, right or wrong.
Francis Gilbert's The New School Rules: the parents' guide to getting the best education for your child is published by Piatkus
Francis Gilbert teaches English at a large London comprehensive