Bad spelling and punctuation to be penalised in exams

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The Independent Online

The head of the Government's exams watchdog is poised to instruct examiners to start penalising poor spelling and grammar in GCSE and A-levels.

The head of the Government's exams watchdog is poised to instruct examiners to start penalising poor spelling and grammar in GCSE and A-levels.

Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualification and Curriculum Authority, told The Independent in an interview that he wants the watchdog to investigate claims that standards of written English in the two exams have slumped.

His comments follow a demand by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who headed a government inquiry into exam reforms, for a review of marking procedures for all exams.

Mr Tomlinson said he found it "difficult to defend" current practice whereby examiners do not penalise candidates for poor spelling, punctuation or grammar provided they can understand what is being written.

Dr Boston said: "We should reward good spelling and good grammar and the use of correct punctuation, and we should penalise errors. I have no doubt about that because it is at the heart of good literacy."

His comments are the first from the QCA on the controversy since it erupted when employers and university professors warned that even graduates were displaying poor standards of written English.

Dr Boston, who was head of education in New South Wales, Australia, before he took over the QCA in 2002 after the A-level marking fiasco, added: "What Mike Tomlinson said is perfectly reasonable. Marking [in Australia] would vary from state to state but I would think we should take a holistic approach. For instance, if you take a global view of the quality of a history essay, you would reflect on how well it was written, the spelling and punctuation and the correct use of tenses.

"The Australian states would only differ as to the degree to which that should be done."

Dr Boston can order exam boards to change marking standards. The QCA says that it insists that markers take standards of written English into account. However, it has the power to toughen the code of practice in the wake of recent concerns.

Mr Tomlinson said his main concern was over English literature but that examiners should be on the look-out for poor spelling and punctuation in other subjects, too. At present, the main focus on poor grammar is in the English language exam. "We need to protect written English," he said. "The quality of written work in examination papers that I've looked at in recent years has deteriorated."

Dr Boston also revealed that he had introduced stringent checks to avoid a repeat of the fiasco over this year's English national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds, where a series of errors this summer had led to the results being delayed for two months.

Papers being sent late to schools and marking errors had led to the delay, a report earlier this month showed. Jonathan Ford, the new head of the National Assessment Agency - set up as a wing of the QCA to oversee the tests - resigned as a result.

Dr Boston said he was taking charge of a special scrutiny committee - which would meet every Thursday - to check progress on all next year's national curriculum tests to avoid a repeat of the fiasco.

"Our objective is to meet the [timetable] next year," he said. "In future, with electronic transfer of data, we should be able to reduce the time it takes to mark the tests."

He was speaking on the eve of announcing a major review of skills and qualifications in the UK. At present, some 4,500 different vocational qualifications can be awarded - including six in tourism alone.

"What we've got at present is incomprehensible," he said. "When we looked at the six qualifications in tourism we found huge overlap - and they could easily be reduced from six to three."