EDUCATION: Get the corrected result

A-Level results come out today. What can you do if you're sure your grades are wrong?
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Ministers this week announced a review of all public examination appeals. From next summer, students who appeal will be able to see their marked papers. Examination boards emphasise the care they already take to ensure everything is fair and accurate. "We check, we recheck, and then we check the checkers," as one spokesperson put it. But with this number of scripts, plus the vast army of fallible human beings marking them, some mistakes are inevitable.

So, if you think you could be at the wrong end of an error and are sure that your results should have been better, it could be worth asking for an investigation.

Unless you sat your examination privately, approach the school or college which arranged your entry (known as the centre). If you plan what is technically known as "an enquiry upon results" you need their go-ahead. With the advent of league tables, schools and colleges are more likely than ever before to query exam results - the Associated Examining Board (now part of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, or AQA, with two other boards) reported a 32 per cent increase in enquiries last year.

There is a fee payable on enquiry, retained by the board if the result stays the same, returned if it's changed. Apart from that, there is nothing to lose by asking. Your grade can be bumped up, but can't be put down, so even if your D turns out to be a E or worse, you won't have to change it.

Each board has slightly different fees for enquiries, but all have more or less the same package of service. At the simplest level, it involves a clerical recheck, looking to see whether the marks add up correctly, and that the papers are attributed to the right candidate.

The next service is re-marking, on top of the clerical check, and individual candidates can get a breakdown of marks, so you can find out which part of the exam let you down (assuming that the re-mark reveals no errors in the examination process). Fee: about pounds 35 to pounds 40; if you want a written report of your performance as well, it's about pounds 70.

Centres sometimes ask for a re-mark and a report for an entire group of students, if many of the results are a grade or two below their predictions. So if you're disappointed, it's worth comparing your expectations and the reality with those of your fellow-students.

A typical result of this sort of enquiry, however, according to George Turnbull of the AQA, may be disappointing. "The report may show that the students have done the work, but they have just not answered the questions on the paper."

He adds even if re-marking bumps candidates up a grade, it does not necessarily mean that the original assessment was "wrong": "All the boards aim for marking to be consistent, but a second assessor can differ by just a mark or two, and that may be enough to make a grade difference."

If the centre remains unsatisfied with everything the exam board has done, it can bring its case, now known technically as an "appeal", to the Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations (IAASE). This was set up eight years ago to make sure "candidates... parents, schools and colleges are satisfied that the [examination] grades are as fair and accurate as they can be". Only a handful of cases get this far; for example, in 1997, there were just seven appeals, only two of which were upheld. The appeals manager, Philomena Waldron, says that it's advisable to let the IAASE know by mid-December if you are likely to proceed this far. "However, we can't consider appeals until the case has gone through the "enquiry upon results" procedure with the appropriate exam board," she adds.

The boards are keen to respond quickly when candidates' university or college places hinge on the grades they have received. "If centres submit a request by 28 August for A-level, and 4 September for GCSE, we'll give highest priority to students whose next move is dependent on their grades," says George Turnbull.

Now that the Government has announced that candidates will get their scripts mailed back to them to check for errors themselves, "The main beneficiary of this could be the Post Office," says George Turnbull.

"If there's routine checking of scripts by candidates and teachers, this could alter the format of exams. They might have to change to American- style tick-box questions, with definite right and wrong answers."

Nasty surprise? Here's what to do if you think you have a case for an enquiry:

Speak to your subject teacher, the school or college, and other candidates, too .

Discuss which service you want to use - a report on your performance may be useful if you think you may re-sit.

You can take your case to the Independent Appeals Authority only after it has gone through the "enquiry upon results" process.

AASE enquiries: 0171-509 5348

How One Student Appealed

BEFORE SHE took her final papers in A-level Theology last year, Beth Pritchard, from Gosforth in Newcastle upon Tyne, had already had one major disappointment. One of her modular essays - marked in advance - had been given a fail grade of N.

"I felt so shocked," she says now. "My teacher had predicted a C. I thought the exam board must have made a dreadful mistake." She knew, too, that the N meant she would have to do outstandingly well in her remaining components, to drag her final overall grade upwards - a task she feared could be beyond her. Her university place demanded a C, or the equivalent in points, from all three of her A-levels.

Pritchard's school, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic comprehensive in Newcastle, agreed to support her case for re-marking. However, the mark came back exactly the same, with the grade still clearly an N. The accompanying report indicated that Pritchard had made a classic error: she had not focussed sufficiently on the question, something her teacher had unfortunately overlooked.

"Getting the mark confirmed left me worried, more than angry," says Pritchard. "It meant I had to cram really hard for the rest of the paper."

Despite the anxiety, she succeeded, and achieved her C. She starts her second year at Leeds University's Trinity and All Saints College in October.