Exam marking reforms will cost pupils their university places, headteachers say

Last year more than 90,000 A-level and GCSE results were changed on appeal – an increase of 17 per cent from 2014

More pupils will miss out on university places because of mis-marked A-levels as a result of proposed reforms to the exam marking system, headteachers have warned.

Heads of state and private schools have taken the rare step of uniting to condemn proposals that the exam regulator Ofqual claims will help address concerns about re-marking procedures. 

There has been a dramatic rise in complaints about inaccurate exam marking, with challenges jumping by 260 per cent over the past five years. 

Last year more than 90,000 A-level and GCSE results were changed on appeal – an increase of 17 per cent from 2014. Some A-level students have been denied university places because courses filled up before their mis-marked papers could be upgraded.

In an attempt to address the problem, Ofqual has proposed reforms, under which papers would not be automatically re-marked in the event of a complaint from schools. Instead, the original mark awarded by an examiner would stand if it is considered “reasonable” by a second employee of the exam board. This is likely to result in a significant fall in the number of papers re-marked. 

Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading private schools, and the National Association of Head Teachers, who between them represent more than 30,000 school leaders, have now submitted a joint response to Ofqual’s consultation, expressing “deep disappointment” with the reforms. 

They said: “We consider the proposals to be unpersuasive, misdirected and likely to make the current unsatisfactory situation worse.” 

The headteachers accuse Ofqual of failing to tackle the key problem of ensuring accurate first-time marks for candidates, and are calling for the Government to set up a central re-marking fund to make it easier for schools to challenge suspected mis-marking, whatever their financial situation. Currently schools and parents have to pay to get papers re-marked, with the fee waived if the grade is changed.

The heads want the introduction of a rigorous re-marking process and accused the regulator of “perversely” introducing reforms that would put more trust in the original mark, thereby making it more difficult to challenge rogue grades successfully. 

Chris King, chair of HMC and Headmaster of Leicester Grammar School said: “These proposals are unfair, fundamentally flawed and likely to put even more pupils’ life chances at risk. They must not be allowed to go ahead.

“We are deeply disappointed, as this was a major opportunity to make the system fairer and start to restore public confidence. These measures are likely to reduce the number of re-grades simply by making it harder to prove the original mark was wrong.” 

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT said: “Students are entitled to a system that gets the marks right first time and is easy to challenge if something goes awry. Their futures depend on this, and their hard work demands it. The way to restore confidence in exam marking is to increase transparency and rigour – not to make appeals harder.”

Julie Swan, acting executive director for general qualifications at Ofqual, said the current system gave an unfair advantage to students who complained about their result. 

“The concept that students are either given a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ mark is a misunderstanding – often, more than one mark can be fair for a script,” she said. “There is no question that marking mistakes should be corrected if they happen, but differences of professional judgement are another matter. 

“The current system can lead some students to get a higher mark on review, even when the first mark was entirely consistent with the mark scheme. That is unfair to those who do not seek a review.”

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