Exams watchdog Ofqual is to mount an investigation into A-level and GCSE marking following claims from independent school heads that up to one in four 16-year-olds receives the wrong marks every year.
The move was announced by Glenys Stacey, chief executive of the regulator, after a report from the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference found there were "shocking failings" in the marking system. Some markers even correct scripts while "in a pub with a pint in their hands", one delegate claimed yesterday.
Ofqual is itself the subject of a legal action brought by an alliance of pupils, headteachers and local authorities over the marking of this year's GCSE English paper. They are seeking a judicial review of the decision to raise grade boundaries between the January and June sittings of the exam.
On the marking investigation, Mrs Stacey told a conference organised by Cambridge Assessment: "We need to respond to what we hear about the quality of marking. We may not want to hear it but we need to look closely at whether our marking schemes are good enough."
Officials at Ofqual will collate evidence about the current marking system with a view to publishing a report in March before the 2013 exam season. Meanwhile, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is to meet leaders of both independent and state school headteachers to discuss their concerns about marking.
Evidence of the slapdash nature of the marking of scripts emerged at yesterday's conference. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I have heard of people who do it in a pub with a pint in their hands and a football match on in the background. Also, if you're doing it at the end of a 12-hour day in school, I don't think you would have a lot of confidence in the system."
Bernadette Brooks, from DRS Data Service, added that some teachers signed on to mark at 5am and then returned to it at 4.30pm after putting in a full day at school.
In her address, Mrs Stacey revealed that exam boards had had to mark 15.5 million scripts – or around 100 million individual answers – in a six-week period this summer. She also warned that year-on-year rises in the exam pass rate had been the biggest cause of a lack of public confidence in the system.
Headteachers will attempt to force a judicial review of this year's English GCSE marking, arguing it was "unfair" that pupils who sat the exam in January and June received different grades for the same marks.
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