GCSE exams not 'fit for purpose', admits Michael Gove

Education Secretary pledges to reform the current 'discredited model' after outcry over English grade changes

Thousands of teenagers were forced to sit GCSE exams which were not "fit for purpose", the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, acknowledged yesterday. In his first public comment on the furore over this year's English results, he said he felt "enormous sympathy for young people this year who sat an English examination which particularly was not fit for purpose".

His comments came after the publication of a report by Ofqual, the exams regulator, on Friday night which refused to regrade the papers of up to 65,000 candidates expected to get a C grade pass but who missed out after the grade boundary was raised at the last minute.

Ofqual admitted that the grade boundaries were raised after some candidates sat the exam in January, but said it was the January marking that was at fault for being "too generous".

Mr Gove, speaking at a conference of the Government's flagship free schools yesterday morning, said: "We need to ensure that we reform examinations at 16, move away from a discredited model and move towards one which is fair and has more rigour."

As a result of the Government's reforms, modular examinations would be phased out as well as controlled assessment of coursework – where teachers mark pupils' coursework at their school.

There would be a shift in emphasis to the end-of-syllabus examination – thus removing the need for two separate sittings of the exams. However, Mr Gove said his reforms would have to go "further, much further" to restore public confidence in the examination system. The Government would, he said, be publishing a consultation document on the reform of exams shortly.

Earlier leaks suggested Mr Gove wanted to bring back O-levels with a "son of CSE" for lower-ability pupils. However, he is now talking of beefing up the GCSE to the standard of the former O-level, rather than replacing it with a new qualification.

Both the current set-up – under which there are two tiers of GCSE papers, one of which has at its ceiling a C grade pass – and the former O-level system, he argues, presided over a two-tier "sheep and goats" structure. He would like the new beefed-up qualification to be taken by the vast majority of young people, as happens in Singapore.

His comments come as figures suggest hosts of independent schools are ditching GCSE exams. Results published yesterday show the number of candidates moving towards the more traditional IGCSE, – based on O-level lines, has soared by almost 50 per cent in the past 12 months to 24.9 per cent of all scripts from 16.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, pressure is building over the Ofqual report, which heads and teachers say has done nothing to tackle the "scandal" of pupils getting different grades despite getting the same marks, depending on when they sat the exam. Heads' and teachers' organisations were meeting at the weekend to discuss the possibility of a legal challenge over what happened, which would mean a judicial review of whether the grading system was fair.

Many pupils have missed out on sixth-form or college places after not getting C grades in English. Hundreds of schools also face closure or being forced to become one of the Government's new academies as a result of missing a target of 40 per cent of pupils obtaining five A* to C grade passes including maths and English.

Mr Gove is expected to be questioned by MPs on the issue when Parliament resumes on Monday. Stephen Twigg, Labour's education spokesman, said the Ofqual report was "not good enough" in getting to grips with the problem.

Members of the highly influential Commons Select Committee on Education will also meet on Wednesday to discuss whether there is a need for them to mount their own investigation into what happened with the exams.

In its report, Ofqual insisted: "The June grade boundaries were right." Glenys Stacey, its chief executive, argued that it was in January and not June when the mistakes were made.

She added that the exam boards were facing an immensely difficult task as they were grappling with a new examination (English had been split into three for the first time: an English paper, one on English language and a third on English literature) for which there could be no comparisons with previous years' papers.

'I wonder whether I will ever mark again. I feel ashamed'

An English GCSE exam marker, who wishes to remain anonymous, on the grade-boundary shift that has wrecked the hopes of many teenagers

I have marked English language and English literature GCSE papers for more than a decade. Each year I mark about 350 scripts, but when you turn the page on each one, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that you have that individual young girl or boy's future in your hands. You have to be consistent, fair and meticulous about your marking across the board. You see that child's name on the front, but once you turn the page you have to put it out of your mind and mark objectively.

This June, as every year, I received my bundle of scripts through registered post for English language GCSE. Each marker has to undergo "standardisation" online with test papers to make sure your marks are comparable with the set standard. There are other rules to follow, such as not doing more than 30 scripts a day in case you give an incorrect mark because you're tired. We don't award grades but mark each script with a number, according to a set of standards set out by the exam board, in my case AQA. We were not, of course, told of any grade boundary changes.

A few years ago I was marking children sitting English language who had been told to write an essay as a letter to someone about their hopes for the future. Because they were writing to a complete stranger, the examiner, these children were pouring their hearts out on the page. One 15-year-old girl wrote that she had had a baby girl a few weeks earlier, she had become a single mother while still at school. Now she was sitting GCSE English and hoped to go to college. She wrote that she hoped her daughter would have a good life that was full of opportunity. I put my pen down and cried, and had to mark it later so I could be objective. Her essay gained her enough marks, back then, for a C grade, which she deserved. If she had sat the exam in June, she would have got a D – and the door to college would have slammed shut.

To Michael Gove, Ofqual and the exam boards, the number of children who deserved a C in June but ended up with a D may just be a statistic, a small percentage of the total who sat English this year. But it is thousands of youngsters, each one with their own dreams. These are not the pupils who can coast through school and still achieve A* or A. They are fighting on the edge of success and failure.

I am deeply disappointed to think that some of the pupils whose scripts I marked in June will have been downgraded. I feel ashamed about being part of this system. It makes me wonder whether I will ever mark again. Their futures have been changed because of political interference. Having been told for years to mark positively and give them what they deserve, rather than mark negatively, it is such a blow.

These children have been let down by Ofqual, and so have we. How pathetic that they have caved into Mr Gove, and just followed his orders.

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