Exam boards to be fined for exam errors

Exam boards are to be fined over future mistakes in GCSE and A-level papers, it was revealed today.

It comes after a series of blunders in this summer's exams which affected tens of thousands of teenagers.

Under the move, England's exams watchdog, Ofqual, will be given new powers to impose financial penalties on boards that make mistakes.

In a letter, Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that following the "significant" errors seen this summer, the Government had considered whether Ofqual had sufficient powers to deal with such problems, and concluded that it did not.

Other regulators have the power to issue fines, the letter to awarding bodies says, but Ofqual does not.

Currently, Ofqual's strongest sanction is to withdraw recognition of an exam board, or withdraw its right to offer a particular qualification.

"Financial penalties would provide an effective and flexible sanction for the regulation of the qualifications system," Mr Gibb wrote.

He added that it is the Government's intention to give Ofqual a power to fine similar to that held by other watchdogs.

A board could face a maximum financial penalty of 10% of its turnover, with the size of any fine imposed in proportion to the scale and seriousness of the error.

The money will go to the public purse.

The new powers are expected to be in place for next summer's exams, following a consultation and new legislation.

It has been suggested that around 100,000 students were affected by around 12 blunders in GCSE, AS and A-level papers set by five exam boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The mistakes ranged from wrong answers in a multiple choice paper, to impossible questions and printing errors.

Ofqual is currently conducting a joint inquiry into the mistakes with the exams regulators in Wales and Northern Ireland.

In the summer, Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey condemned the mistakes as "unacceptable".

The errors included:

:: A multiple choice question featuring four wrong answers in an Edexcel AS-level biology paper sat by 17,000 students

:: Students sitting an AQA AS-level business paper being presented with a question, worth a maximum of three marks, that did not include the information needed to come up with an answer

:: A maths AS-level paper, set by the OCR exam board and taken by 6,790 pupils, also containing an unanswerable question. The question, which was worth eight marks, 11% of the paper, was impossible to solve as it was incomplete.

An Ofqual spokesman said: "We welcome the announcement that, subject to the will of Parliament, Ofqual is to be given powers to fine awarding organisations in circumstances where they fail to meet the standards required of them.

"We will ensure that these powers are used proportionately and appropriately, and will carry out a consultation into when and how the powers to fine will be used."

Mr Gibb said: "It is unacceptably poor practice for even one paper to contain an error. But this summer there were numerous errors.

"We want to give Ofqual tougher powers so it has a range of sanctions at its disposal and can take action against exam boards who fall short of the high standards students and parents expect. Giving Ofqual the power to fine would provide a powerful incentive to awarding organisations to comply with their regulatory obligations and improve standards.

"It would act as a deterrent and send a clear signal to students and the wider public that the exam boards will face consequences where they get things wrong."

Toni Pearce, National Union of Students Vice-President (Further Education) said: "We're delighted to see that the Department for Education have listened to our calls to grant greater powers to Ofqual. We look forward as well to continuing to work with Ofqual's inquiry into the spate of errors that occurred in exam papers earlier this year.

"Whilst it is inevitable that there will be the occasional error, the level of errors that young people experienced in exams in the last year was truly unacceptable and Ofqual must be willing to exercise its new powers if exam boards fail to raise their game in the future."