The exam system has come under sustained fire over the past month, as the GCSE marking scandal continues to rumble on. Now, some of the most powerful voices in education have entered the fray with their own damning indictment.
In a 92-page dossier, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) has called for exam boards to be forced to reveal how many of their markers are judged unsatisfactory each year in a bid to stamp out "rogue marking".
Exams regulator Ofqual should also look into the qualifications and experience of markers at different boards, the group of private school heads said.
The report, released prior to the HMC's annual conference in Belfast next week, said a move to publish data on failing examiners was necessary to help tackle "persistent and widespread incompetence in marking".
In a letter accompanying the document, sent to education secretary Michael Gove, HMC leaders warned that the "widespread" and "largely unexplained" inadequacy of examining was the biggest threat to the introduction of the new, tougher English Baccalaureate Certificates.
The HMC is calling for changes to the appeals procedure, which does not force boards to show that papers have been re-marked by subject specialists. It complained that the system was currently only overseen in a "cursory manner" by Ofqual, allowing boards to be secretive about how reviews were carried out.
One head called the appeals procedure "truly wretched", claiming that most schools would not have the time or resources to see their complaints through each hurdle of the process.
William Richardson, general secretary of the HMC, and its chairman Chris Ray, the high master of Manchester Grammar School, explained in their letter to Mr Gove: "While there are many excellent examiners, including many in our own schools, we detail here just how widespread is the incidence of poor marking and the huge and distracting recourse made by schools to securing the re-marking of papers and the highly unsatisfactory nature of the appeals system."
John Dunford, chair of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, said the quality of exam setting and marking was "of critical importance to the validity and credibility of the system".
"We ought to have a professional examinations workforce in which everyone is a member or fellow of the Chartered Institute, as happens in other professions, such as engineering," he said. "You wouldn't ask someone to design a bridge unless they were accredited by the Institution of Civil Engineers; it should be the same for those engaged in assessment."
As well as revealing erratic and inconsistent marking, the HMC report reveals a host of what it calls "inexplicable inconsistencies" in the awarding of grades between 2007 and 2012.
Schools experienced wide variations in the percentage of grades given to successive years of pupils in the same GCSE and A-level subject, the report said. Around one in five HMC schools reported increases or falls of more than 10 per cent in the proportion of pupils winning the two top grades in GCSE English between 2010 and 2011.
The ongoing issues, the report said, had led to independent schools "voting with their feet" by shunning GCSEs and A levels in favour of IGCSEs, the IB Middle Years Programme, the Cambridge Pre-U and the International Baccalaureate. It said the numbers of HMC schools taking IGCSEs this year had increased by 52 per cent.
"The state of the examinations industry is truly shocking and is clearly no longer fit for purpose," Dr Ray said. "The problems go far deeper than this year's disastrous mishandling of the English language GCSE grades."
Shades of grades
20% proportion of HMC schools experiencing at least a 10 per cent swing between 2010 and 2011 in English A and A* grades.
100 HMC schools that lodged complaints about grades to the AQA board about GCSE drama in 2011.
52% rise in HMC schools taking IGCSEs this year.
The state of the examinations industry is truly shocking and is clearly no longer fit for purpose.