Parents and students who are unhappy with their GCSE and A-level results should be able to appeal direct to the exam boards and the appeals authority, Lady Anson, chairman of the Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations, said this week.
The four-year-old authority, which has published a frank account of its strengths and weaknesses, is pushing for greater accountability and a speedier system for rectifying exam boards' mistakes. Only exam centres or schools can currently query exam results, and the appeals authority only becomes involved when the exam boards' procedures have been exhausted.
But Lady Anson, who was speaking at the launch of the authority's 1993-94 report in London, said: "We are waiting to see if there is a demand among parents and candidates for their own individual system of appeal. Ministers say there is no present demand from parents but we will wait and see."
She was commenting on the declining number of appeals heard by the authority since 1991, when 20 were heard, compared to nine in 1992 and five in 1993.
The authority and the exam boards have been discussing how the appeals system can be widened. In Scotland, for example, anyone can query results though not everyone can instigate an appeal.
Parents often ring the authority in a highly emotional state after receiving their children's exam results. The authority guides and counsels parents, and sees this as part of its job, but finally it has to refer them back to the exam centre.
The authority is also concerned about the slowness of the appeals system, and has made arrangements for schools and exam boards to be contactable in the summer holidays. This year, however, three out of the five 1993 appeals were heard in the last week before the authority's June 30 deadline, when candidates were sitting the 1994 examinations.
The report says: "The IAASE would prefer an even rate of activity concentrated in the autumn when errors could be corrected in time for decisions affecting candidates' careers, including, crucially, entry to higher or further education.
"This ideal is far from being met. Delays are at the root of this frustration and their causes lie at once with centres and examining bodies. Despite the authority's continuing efforts to publicise its existence and role. . . some centres still disclaim knowledge of the IAASE or of its procedures and timetable.
"The approach of some centres can only be described as offhand. Sometimes parents' persistence and, no doubt, their financial backing, have persuaded centres to appeal to the examining body."
Some critics have dubbed the IAASE a "toothless tiger", but the authority, anxious to improve its effectiveness, last year persuaded the Education Secretary to give it the power to complain to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority if it was dissatisfied with an exam board's conduct. SCAA has the power to take away a board's licence in extreme cases.
However, Lady Anson said: "We are not satisfied yet that we have got the system right."
The IAASE has heard 41 appeals on A-level and GCSE exams since 1990; of those, 16 were allowed. It costs about Pounds 15 per head for an exam script to be re-examined, but schools are reimbursed if they win their case.
The authority can be contacted at Newcombe House, 45 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3JB. Tel: 071 229 1234.
* A London school has called for an overhaul of the GCSE exam marking system following "a fiasco of incompetence and gross negligence".
The Latymer grammar school in Edmonton, which tops the Financial Times league table for co-educational state schools, complained about mistakes in the marking of its English GCSE candidates' scripts by London Examinations in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
Last year the Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations and London Examinations upheld the school's appeals and the board's English marking was severely criticised.
In the worst case the original examiner awarded 19 marks out of 50, but this was raised by the principal examiner at the second re-marking to 37, raising the grade from a C to an A.