Remaking the grade

Disappointing results can be challenged, but be prepared for more agony, writes Bethan Marshall
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The Independent Online
After months of hard work, days of rushing adrenaline and weeks of tension, the agony is finally over. That stamped, addressed envelope has come. The A-level results have arrived. But for some the real agony has only just begun. The promise of a university place or a job has been dashed by just one small letter on a flimsy but official piece of paper. They haven't made the grade. And while many will rue the day they did not work just that bit harder, a few will feel that justice has not quite been done.

This was certainly true of David Innes' son. He had been offered a place on a product design course, and the university had been sufficiently impressed by him to ask only for a grade C. He had, however, every hope of doing better in his Design Technology A level. The school had predicted a grade A and in his two-year practical project, which constituted 50% of his marks, they had awarded him 85%.

In some ways he was lucky. He did achieve the grade that was required but it was sufficiently lower than the one he was predicted to knock his confidence considerably, particularly as it was in his chosen career.

What really shocked everyone, however, was the discrepancy, in his course work grade, between the school's mark of 85% and the board's-a mere 54%. So the family decided to query the result, a move that David Innes now says is not for the faint-hearted.

If a school is concerned by a number of their students' results, they will ask for a re-mark of the papers. In order to do this they can ask for a sample of between 5 and 15 candidates to be re-marked by the board for which they pay a flat rate. If the exam board finds marking irregularities it repays the school the fee and then re-marks the whole cohort free of charge.

The path is not so easy for a parent. Individuals are not allowed to question exam board decisions. All queries have to be made through the school or centre in which the exam was taken. In this instance, while the school supported the case for a re-mark, they asked the Innes family to foot the bill. It cost them pounds 70. The University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations (now part of the OCEAC-the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council) did upgrade the marks and the two papers, sat under exam conditions, moved from a B to an A. But, because there was no movement on the coursework element of the exam, the overall grade stubbornly remained a C.

Then, in December, David heard about the Independent Appeals Authority for Schools Examinations. He discovered that he had only two days to lodge an appeal against the board's decision to award his son a C but, on applying to them, (which cost another pounds 50, this time paid for by the school) he found that he needed to have exhausted the exam board procedures before they would listen to his case. So he lodged an appeal with the board. Another pounds 50.

"It really is a very complex and expensive business and nobody makes it easy for you," he says. In fact, the number for the IAASE is not even listed in directory enquiries.

He had to write a letter giving the grounds for the appeal and was eventually given a hearing at the Board's head office in Oxford. "It really is a most daunting procedure and not one you'd undertake lightly. In a way, I was fortunate. My brother-in-law is a deputy head and my wife is a teacher and so they helped with all the jargon I had to put in just to get the appeal heard but that makes it a very unfair system because you have to be very articulate. The hearing is the most gruelling, though. I work in marketing so I'm used to making presentations but I'm not an academic and I was faced by about five of them in this enormous panelled room. It was extremely formal and a bit like a court of law. The cards certainly felt stacked against us".

His son's CDT (Craft, Design and Technology) teacher accompanied him to the appeal hearing but, when he arrived, the first few minutes were taken up by the appeals committee deciding whether or not they could proceed without the candidate (something all boards require). "I hadn't realised that he was expected to be there but I'm glad he wasn't. I managed to keep my head throughout the proceedings but he would have been justifiably very upset. They were very scathing about the approach he had taken to his project, even though the school had been careful to get an outside expert in the field to judge the quality of the work before submitting it. It would have been really hard for him to sit there and hear his work dissected like that.

"In the end, the board's decision was upheld because the procedures had been adhered to and they clearly weren't prepared to shift their judgement on the quality of the work. We didn't take it up with IAASE, even though we'd already paid, because they can only adjudicate on the procedures. My son's now doing extremely well in a highly-regarded design school. The real tragedy would have been if he hadn't even got on the course."

In the last six years the IAASE has only heard 58 appeals and upheld 22 of them. Exam boards do upgrade candidates work, usually as a result of a school inquiry, but as Philomena Warden of IAASE comments, "Schools react very differently to parental requests. Even if they're very sympathetic they often ask parents to pay because it is an expensive business." And as David Innes knows only too well, "It's not an easy track to follow and in the end you may not succeed"n

how to appeal

If several candidates have done less well than expected, the school or college may ask for a re-mark

Even if it is only your child that has not done well, you still appeal through the school or college, so it is important to contact them immediately

Schools have copies of a booklet produced by the exam boards explaining the appeals procedure. All boards follow the same procedures but the price of a remark may vary from pounds 50 to pounds 70.

You can ask for different kinds of re-mark. The most useful is the one which offers a re-mark, clerical check (i.e. looks at the adding up of the marks) and a report which gives a detailed account of the candidate's work.

If you are still unhappy with the result, you can lodge an appeal with the board. Some boards charge for this service (up to pounds 50) but others do not. You can query any of the procedures involved, including: the setting of the papers; marking, moderation and grade award; and any of the administrative arrangements.

Although they can turn down your appeal for lacking sufficient grounds, the boards often grant an appeal hearing which is heard by an independent appeals committee.

If this fails, you can appeal to IAASE on any of the board's procedures, including the handling of the appeal. They are based at Newcombe House, 45 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3JB, tel: (0171-229-1234). They do not have the power to re-mark or raise grades but they can require boards to do so. The boards, however, also have the right of appeal.