Pressure builds on Ofqual after leaked letters reveal it overruled 'fair' GCSE grades

10th September 2012 at 16:44
Calls for chief regulator to resign after correspondence emerges that contradicts its report into scandal

England's qualifications watchdog forced an exam board to make significant changes to GCSE English grades examiners had insisted were "fair" just two weeks before the publication of this summer's controversial results, TES has learned.

Ofqual's intervention - which contradicts a key finding from its inquiry into the marking crisis - has prompted calls from a former Ofqual board member for chief regulator Glenys Stacey to resign, describing her position as "untenable".

June's grade boundaries were correct and set by examiners "using their best professional judgement, taking into account all of the evidence available to them," Ms Stacey concluded when publishing Ofqual's inquiry report ten days ago. But letters between Ofqual and exam board Edexcel, seen by TES, reveal that examiners' professional judgement was actually overruled by the regulator.

Ofqual ordered Edexcel to dramatically toughen up its English GCSE grade boundary despite strong protests from the board that its original decision was "fair" and backed by "compelling evidence". The last minute changes will have led to many pupils missing out on crucial C grades.

The revelation comes as Ofqual and heads leaders prepare for questioning on the controversy before the Commons education select committee this (Tuesday) morning.

Members of an alliance including academies, local authorities, independent schools, unions and FE colleges fear that the committee may side with Ofqual and not embark on the full investigation they are demanding. But the letters are likely to bolster their case.

The correspondence also reveals that Edexcel had serious concerns about the reliability of Ofqual's strategy of tackling grade inflation by linking results to pupils' previous performance as 11-year-olds.

John Townsley, an Ofqual board member until March and a head who believes his pupils' English GCSEs were unfairly graded, called for Ms Stacey to resign and accused Ofqual of "bullying" exam boards.

"The content of these letters is startling and makes absolutely clear that Ofqual itself has been at the centre of this disgraceful episode," the executive principal of the Morley and Farnley academies in Leeds said.

"We can see, in the most certain terms possible, Ofqual applying immense pressure to the awarding body concerned in order to bring down the number of C grades awarded. Glenys Stacey's position is untenable and she should resign with immediate effect."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said the letters were "deeply troubling" and Ofqual's credibility was "draining away by the day".

Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's School in east London, described the regulator's action actions as "immoral" and "inhuman".

"I don't think Ofqual thought about pupils when it did this," she said. "I think they were trying to keep the government happy."

Ofqual's director of standards, Dennis Opposs, wrote to Edexcel on August 7, concerned that the board was about to award results for GCSE English that would see the proportion of pupils with grade Cs rise eight percentage points above the statistical prediction.

He called on the board to act "quickly" and "produce outcomes that are much closer to the predictions". "This may require you to move grade boundary marks further than might normally be required," he acknowledged.
Edexcel replied the following day, stating that it had taken into account "all available evidence" and considered the issues raised by Ofqual but still felt its proposed grades were "fair".

The predictions cited by Ofqual, based on candidates' key stage 2 SAT results, "can only be, at best, an indicator of performance," the board's letter argued. There were other factors such as a change in cohort, and the modular nature of exams and it "would be negligent not to take into account as much information as possible", it added.

Edexcel sums up its case in bold type, stating: "We believe this to be compelling evidence that our award is a fair award and we do not believe a further revision of our grade boundaries is justified."

But the letter adds that if, despite its arguments, Ofqual still required a change, the board could move the minimum requirement for a C grade in one of the GCSE English units up to 65 marks out of 96 - a rise of 10 from January's 55 mark grade boundary.

Ofqual does not engage with Edexcel's arguments in its August 9 reply. Mr Opposs simply states that it is obliged to ensure its results are consistent with other boards that were close enough to predictions. "It is for you to decide how that is achieved," he writes.

The letter also suggests that the 65 mark boundary would actually be tougher than the predictions required. But Edexcel's website shows that the 65 boundary was finally adopted.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Ofqual's insistence that standards were comparable no longer holds water.

"Thousands of students have been treated unfairly because flawed implementation of a new qualification."

Questions will now be raised about whether Ofqual intervened with other boards' results, particularly AQA - the board which had the largest number of schools using GCSE English.

But on GCSE results day Andrew Hall, AQA chief executive, denied he had been "leant on by anybody".

An Ofqual spokesman said: "When setting out our comparable outcomes approach, we have made it clear that where exam boards propose results that differ significantly from expectations, we will challenge them and intervene where necessary to make sure standards are correct.

"When the Bill establishing Ofqual was debated in Parliament in 2009, there was a consensus that Ofqual needed the power to intervene in grade boundary setting where necessary to secure standards - we are doing no more than Parliament intended.

"The correspondence with Edexcel was part of that process and was entirely proper. We will set this out in detail in our final report. The exam board made the final decision on the grade boundaries."

An Edexcel spokesperson said: "Where the grade boundaries were positioned for GCSE English was clearly a matter of extensive discussionthis yearbetweenexam boards and the regulator.

"As this correspondence shows, Edexcel madecertainreservations clear to Ofqual, in the interests of maintaining standards. Our final award, which we believe was fair to all learners, followed specific requests from Ofqual to help them todo that on anational basis acrossall exam boards."

*TES will publish the full letters online this morning.

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