`I am disappointed, although the moral victory is ours'

Personally speaking
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The Independent Online
It was August 1994. Naturally nervous on receiving my GCSE grades, I opened the brown envelope. Satisfaction at seeing the grades quickly turned to devastation on realising that I had been given a `D' grade for English Literature, my best subject. "There must be some mistake..." I thought. After all, I did get an A* in English Language. Little did I realise then that this disappointing grade would ultimately be the subject of a two- and-a-half year legal battle. The school I attended at the time, University College School, was shocked when they considered the grades of 49 other candidates in my year and found that similarly, they were much lower than expected. Feeling an injustice had been done, the school sought a re-mark of 30 boys' scripts through MEG (the Midland Examining Group, now the Cambridge Group.) The result was six minor grade adjustments, despite the fact that John Pountain, the deputy chief examiner, admitted in a letter to the school "a degree of unreliable marking by the original examiner."

The school then appealed to the IAASE (the Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations), which acts as an arbiter. At the hearing in March 1995, the IAASE panel, led by its chairman Dame Elizabeth Anson, instructed MEG to order a re-mark of all the school's scripts "by an examiner who has seen none of these scripts before and has no connection with the previous marking of them ... under the supervision and scrutiny of an appropriate senior examiner from another examining body."

The MEG challenged the IAASE ruling, with the result that the re-mark was relaxed to a "review" - with the examiner from another group being used merely as an "observer" rather than a supervisor and scrutineer. Perhaps tired of the wrangling, the school agreed to both the change in ruling and relaxation of conditions. After a long delay, MEG confirmed in September 1995 that no further grade adjustments were to be made.

MEG did allow English teachers from the school to see the scripts, but only after the school gave assurances that the matter of the grades given in 1994 was now over and that the purpose of disclosing the scripts would be for teaching purposes only. After seeing them, the teachers reported unanimously that, in their professional opinion, the re-marking process was not carried out effectively and the scripts were not fairly assessed.

Dissatisfied, my family took the case to the High Court on my behalf, where we encountered more problems. At the Judicial Review in June 1996, Judge Latham ruled that in the circumstances, albeit under relaxed conditions, the procedure was carried out appropriately and, hence, could not be challenged. Our case was also struck out in the High Court in January this year. Master Murray, sitting in Chambers, ruled that the examination board could not be held accountable for negligence and lack of due care when marking my script. Hence the question of damages, which we requested, was a non- existent one.

On reflection, there can be only one word to describe how I feel now: disappointment - not only for myself, but also for my father, who put so much energy, money and time into the case. My low grade in English Literature could have been the reason why I was rejected from my chosen universities, so making me take an unwanted "gap" year. Driven by the wish to vindicate myself and to confirm the original grade as a nonsense, I took my A-level English Literature exam last summer. I obtained an `A' grade and, irony of all ironies, was later awarded a Certificate of Excellence by the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council.

There are many questions that I feel still need answering. First, since the pupil pays examination fees to the examining body via the school, and is the principal beneficiary of such a "service", how is it that there is no legal contract between them? And how can there be no accountability for negligence and lack of care?

Second, if we have a body such as the IAASE to oversee complaints, how can the boards have the right to challenge the IAASE ruling?

Although the moral victory is ours and the legal one the exam board's, I am convinced that in the near future the issue will be raised again and the question of a proper "safety net" for pupils will become a priorityn

Simon Zekaria will start his degree course in English Literature at Edinburgh University this autumn.

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