Extra pressure on markers 'led to A-level errors'

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The Independent Online

Exam results of A and AS-level students were riddled with errors this summer because of the pressure on examiners to mark extra scripts, headteachers of Britain's leading independent schools said yesterday.

Heads spoke of their concern that university places for many of their sixth-formers had been placed in jeopardy as a result.

Geoff Lucas, secretary to the Headmasters' Conference (HMC), which represents the country's leading independent boys' schools, said there was growing evidence that examiners had sacrificed quality of marking in order to get results out on time.

This year, for the first time, they were faced with marking twice as many scripts as a result of the introduction of the new AS-level exam.

Mr Lucas said: "Schools were allowed to look at the original scripts for the first time this year and they are questioning some of the judgements that have been made. Delivery on time has been at the expense of some of the quality."

Headteachers had predicted the number of enquiries about appeals against grades would go down as a result of the Government's decision to allow examiners to reduce grades as well as increase them if appeals were made.

Graham Able, headmaster of Dulwich College in London and chairman of HMC's Education and Academic Policy Committee, admitted there were fewer enquiries immediately after the results but said the numbers had increased once teachers had seen the scripts. He predicted there would be many more changes in grade this year than usual.

As a result of the deluge in later applications for re-marks, exam boards had been unable to meet a 30-day "fast-track" deadline for dealing with cases where students were awaiting grades to take up a university place.

"There are cases in all three awarding bodies [EdExcel, the Oxford and Cambridge Examining Board and Royal Society of Arts – OCR – and the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance – AQA] where the 30-day fast-track marking procedure has not been adhered to," Mr Able said. The delays could jeopardise students' chances of a university place, he added.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "I have been saying for years that the examining boards should be able to sort out appeals in time for a student to get to university. It is inexcusable that they have not done it this year. I have had members calling in who are absolutely furious about it."

Examination boards were forced to ask many of their senior markers to take responsibility for more scripts this summer to offset a shortage of volunteers for work. Even so, The Independent uncovered evidence of many more schools not receiving their results on time this year.

The HMC, which is holding its annual conference in London this week, is due to debate a shake-up to the exam system tomorrow.

Chris Brown, its chairman and headmaster of Norwich School, said: "We are faced with three successive years of public exams – GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels. We feel in educational terms this is too much. The system is in danger of being too exam driven and too aggressive."

Many heads back a reduction in the number of GCSEs taken by youngsters, with the brightest students sitting the exam a year earlier so they can start sixth-form courses at 15.