An independent school has condemned the system for appealing exam grades after pupils had to wait more than a year for their marks to be improved.
Paul Chapman, director of studies at Yarm School, Stockton-on-Tees, said schools were pitted in a David versus Goliath battle with the exam boards in challenging poor marking.
The school appealed three times to the OCR exam board after a class of classics GCSE pupils received lower grades than expected.
After their case was rejected, the school eventually took its complaint to the Examinations Appeal Board, which found unanimously in its favour. Now, every pupil in the class has received higher marks, with 11 out of 16 getting a higher overall grade.
"It has been a frustrating process that has taken more than a year to resolve," said Dr Chapman. "There are real barriers in place when schools want to challenge the quality of marking. The rules and regulations are confusing and we only managed to succeed after a lot of time and effort. The whole thing seemed very much like David versus Goliath."
Dr Chapman and Andrew Killick, the school's head of classics, are calling for the appeals system to be reformed and speeded up.
Mr Killick said this was the worst example of dealing with an exam board that he had come across since he began teaching in 1970.
"There was a crying need for the board to be more flexible and attentive to our case," he said. "But they were not. They constantly stonewalled and delayed us. There was a total lack of co-operation."
When the school initially called for a re-mark, a senior examiner reviewed the marks already given, rather than starting from fresh on an unmarked answer sheet.
"There is an inbuilt bias to agree with the original finding," said Mr Killick. "It is hard for them to have the courage to say, `My colleague has got it completely wrong.'"
All of the appeals made by the school were about the marks given to pupils on the second paper of their classics GCSE exams. Lower marks were given to all pupils on the paper, with one student going from an A grade on paper one to a D on paper two. That should have sounded a warning bell at OCR that the marking could be suspect, Mr Killick said.
The appeals board said OCR had an unclear mark scheme and had failed to deal with specific points raised by the school.
A spokesman for OCR said it was reviewing its procedures in light of the case to ensure such discrepancies in marking did not happen again. "Marking is a system based on people, so mistakes will happen," the spokesman said. "The appeals system can be slow, but that's because it seeks to be as fair as possible. We apologise to the pupils, parents and teachers involved in this case."
The appeals process is agreed by the Joint Council for Qualifications and is followed by all the exam boards. But OCR has been criticised before for being reluctant to change grades on appeal.
As reported in The TES last year, a letter to A-level examiners told them not to change marks unless there were overwhelming reasons to do so. "If a degree of subjectivity is involved, very strong grounds are needed to change the original mark," the letter said.
The number of appeals lodged against exam boards is tiny in proportion to the total number of examinations taken.
Following the 2007 exams, almost 72,000 GCSE exams were re-marked out of a total of more than 6.1 million exams that were taken, accounting for just 1.2 per cent of papers. Just over 15,500 of those re-marks resulted in a change of overall grade.
If schools remain unhappy with the grades after an exam has been re- marked, they can go through a further two-stage appeal process.
This first stage is a review of the case by a senior member of the exam board. If this fails to resolve the situation, staff can make a presentation to the exam board to plead their case.
Only after those steps have been taken, and if no resolution has been reached, can schools can apply to the independent Examinations Appeal Board.