Michael Gove's reforms to GCSEs and A-levels will amount to nothing more than “houses built on sand” if he fails to tackle the “shocking” failings in the way exams are marked and grades awarded, top independent schools have warned the Education Secretary.
The heads lambasted “shocking” marking standards as it emerged they have led to tens of thousands of pupils getting the wrong grades in both GCSE and A-level exams.
Up to 150,000 pupils - one in four - receive the wrong GCSE grades every year because of shoddy marking by examiners, a report by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference schools, which represents many of the country's most elite independent schools, revealed.
Heads warned that Mr Gove's move to make just one exam board responsible for each core subject area may even exacerbate the situation.
One head, Christopher Ray, High Master of Manchester Grammar School and chairman of the HMC, explained: “The only device many of us have is to say to boards if we don't like their service 'we'll move somewhere else'.
“If there is nowhere else to move that market pressure goes. The perceived arrogance and complacency of the awarding bodies becomes worse because it is a monopoly.”
Poor quality marking coupled with “inexplicable inconsistencies” over the awarding of grades has also led to fewer teachers having confidence in the exam system, the HMC added.
Last night heads joined forces to decry what they described as an exam system “in deterioration and decay”.
Mr Ray added: “The state of the examinations industry is truly shocking and is clearly no longer fit for purpose.
“The problems go far deeper than this year's disastrous mishandling of the English language GCSE grades,”
John Claughton, Chief Master of King Edward's Boys' School in Birmingham - which has regularly topped exam performance tables - added:
“The vast majority of heads bite their lips and put up with it. I think it has probably got worse in the past decade - particularly at A-level.”
Peter Hamilton, headmaster of Haberdashers' Aske's school in Elstree, Hertfordshire, added: “Remember, this is a story about real people. It is a story about boys and girls who don't get justly rewarded. It is about parents' distress.
“I can't begin to describe to you how desperate it is to go through this experience (of getting your papers remarked).”
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders - which represents state school heads, described the findings as “the tip of the iceberg”. Many state schools, it was argued, do not have the funds to pursue complaints.
The report criticises exam boards for adopting “a culture of secrecy” over faults to cover up their inadequacies and says exams regulator Ofqual has not paid enough attention to the problem.
The report's key findings show:
*One in four teachers believe at least a quarter of their pupils have been awarded the wrong grades.
*Enquiries about remarking are growing - with 204, 600 last year (a rise from 171, 400 the previous year). As a result 12,250 A-level grades were changed as were 26,270 GCSE grades
*38 per cent of teacher lack confidence in the accuracy of GCSE marking and 27 per cent lack confidence in A-level.
William Richardson, general secretary of HMC, said pupils were having to “dumb down” their answers to exam questions to get an A* grade.
“Heads will say our most able pupils who don't use the buzz words (that tick the examiner's box) don't get the top grades,” he added. “The markers cannot accommodate the originality of their answers.
“And the most depressing thing for a teacher with a high calibre of pupil is to coach the most able pupils on dumbing down their answers to get an A*.”
As for the Government's exam reforms, the report argues: “These new qualifications will be just as vulnerable to the erosion of public confidence.”
As an example of the wide variations in awarding grades, the percentage of A*'s in GCSE English literature at King Edward's, Birmingham, had varied from 11 per cent to 65 per cent over a 13 year period - despite a highly selective intake of roughly the same ability. Since switching to the IGCSE, the grades had been fairly constant for the past two years, “From HMC data, it seems very likely that for a number of years tens of thousands of students across schools in England have been receiving questionable GCSE grades in English, English Language and English Literature,” the report goes on.
Reasons for the increase in shoddy marking include the vast growth in the number of scripts marked (15 million this year) and the lack of training for examiners and markers.
Concern over marking is widespread, heads argued, with one leading vice-chancellor at a conference of Universities UK - the body which represents all vice-chancellors - querying the validity of A-level marking while Universities Minister David Willetts was present.
The HMC is arguing that Ofqual should investigate marking standards more rigorously and publish evidence on markers' performance. They conceded that the introduction of Mr Gove's planned English Baccalaureate with its concentration on end-of-course tests will limit the amount of assessments to be marked.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We have been clear that the exams system is in desperate need of a thorough overhaul.
“We agree with HMC that there are serious problems with marking and quality control.”
Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Art (OCR) exam board, said: “One method which could lead to immediate improvement would be for fee-paying schools to encourage more teachers to take up assessment, helping to ensure the high quality consistent marking as called for by the HMC.”
A spokesman for Ofqual said it was “looking closely” at the quality of marking.