A flagship academy is facing allegations that teachers inflated their pupils' GCSE coursework marks in this summer's English exams.
A complaint against the Harris Academy Beckenham, in south London, has been lodged with the exams regulator Ofqual claiming that there is a "drastic discrepancy" between the grades awarded for coursework marked internally by teachers – especially for the paper's speaking and listening section – and the externally marked written exam at the end of the course.
The school is run by the Harris Federation, one of the UK's most successful academy chains, and often cited by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, as an example in raising standards for others to follow. It is also often called in to act as an official sponsor when a failing school is forced to accept academy status.
In his complaint to Ofqual, the whistle-blower – a teacher who has been close to the school – accuses teachers of "inflating grades in the controlled-assessment area of the crucial English language test to the point that they do not reasonably reflect the ability of the students of a significant section of their year 11 (GCSE group) cohort".
His analysis of the results shows that 78 of the 132 pupils put in for the exam sat the foundation paper – the easier of the two GCSE papers. Of the 78, 81 per cent gained an A*- to C-grade pass in the internally marked speaking and listening section of the paper compared with just 4 per cent in the externally marked end-of-course writing exam. A third strand of the paper, a writing paper also marked internally, showed that 45 per cent got a top-grade pass.
The teacher's submission says the results show a "drastic discrepancy" between the outcomes of the internally and externally marked papers. This, he argues "becomes even more extreme when a comparison was made between the outcome of the centre-assessed [school-assessed] speaking and listening grade and the externally assessed exam grade".
While accepting that some students have English as a second language and may struggle more with the final written exam, he says the discrepancy still exists with those students who do not have English as a second language. "Surely, in the light of the gross discrepancy that has appeared post exam results, all the controlled-assessment written scripts need to be called in and if possible compared to the exam scripts."
The speaking and listening section of the English GCSE has posed major problems for Ofqual and, as from next June, its marks will no longer count towards the overall GCSE results.
A spokesman for Ofqual said: "I can confirm that we have received allegations about possible malpractice around speaking and listening assessments at this school. We will now be making further inquiries, including asking the relevant exam boards to investigate the claims."
He added: "We have already taken action to stop speaking and listening assessments for GCSE English counting towards the final grade as there is no way to make sure that they are carried out and marked consistently across all schools and colleges.
"We have also reviewed the wider use of controlled assessment and set out guidance for its role in the future – limited to where it is the most valid form of assessment and can be delivered securely."
The Harris Academy is understood to strongly contest the whistle-blower's claims.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that a target-based results system is something that needs to change: "Far too often, schools are being put under intolerable pressure to meet new targets, often with very little notice. We need to get away from an inspection and accountability system [that is] punitive and high-stakes to one that is developmental and supportive towards schools, teachers and headteachers. This is a problem of the Government and Ofsted's own making," she said.
The Harris Federation currently runs 27 primary and secondary schools. Nine out of the 11 that have been open for more than a year have been rated as "outstanding" by the education standards watchdog Ofsted, which compares with just 20 per cent of schools nationally.
The Harris Academy Beckenham has seen a 24 per cent rise in the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grade passes including maths and English since it was taken over by the Harris Federation two years ago.