How pupils who paid fees were buying a higher exam mark

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Parents choose to buy education for their children for many reasons. Sometimes it is family tradition, smaller classes and more individual tuition; perhaps there is an element of social cachet or snobbery.

They hope their children will also get better examination results, and yesterday came evidence that indeed they do - even if they don't deserve them.

A report from government exam advisers found that A-level English examiners awarded candidates from top fee-paying schools higher grades than they deserved. Its findings mean that some of the 5,000 candidates involved, almost all from fee-paying schools, may have secured university places which would otherwise have gone to comprehensive school pupils, Dr Nick Tate, the authority's chief executive, admitted.

The report is the most damning indictment of the conduct of an exam ever seen by officials at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Candidates examined by the board included students from Winchester, Eton and King's College School, Wimbledon.

Overall, 60,000 candidates took A-level English. The report reveals that some of those entered with the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Exam Board last summer had their marks increased, not on the basis of what they had written, but because of the grade predictions made by their teachers. Exam boards use predictions to help sort out big discrepancies in marks.

Dr Tate said the examiners in this case made a number of changes, which might amount to as much as two grades, without even looking at the scripts. Instead, they relied on teacher predictions, knowledge of the schools and of individual examiners. He said: "The way the exam process was conducted was unworthy of a reputable examining board...

"There is no evidence of collusion between the schools and the board but there is evidence of overgenerosity. Teachers' grade predictions are a bit of information to be taken into account but they should not be the main factor."

The upgrading took place at the end of the exam process. In virtually all cases, the report says, the upgrading was unjustified. "In one instance, the marks given to a candidate who had produced extremely brief responses had been changed from 14 out of 60 to 40 out of 60 with no apparent justification."

The board's chief examiner in English, Dr John Saunders, who headed an 11-strong team, resigned last July. He said he was protesting against the imposition of new marking rules which penalised gifted candidates.

Last night, he said: "The notion that we are going to give Eton everything we want is completely untrue.

"This report is a slur on people of high integrity and professional experience. There was no upgrading of candidates on the basis of teachers' predictions alone."

A spokesman for the Independent Schools Information Service said: "There's no evidence of partiality to independent school candidates. The fact that the majority of candidates taking this syllabus were from independent schools is an historical accident."

The board, which has merged with another and is now the Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council, said a new team of senior examiners had been appointed for English and measures put in place to prevent a repetition of last summer's events.

Dr Tate has asked the board to ensure that similar problems are not occurring in other subjects. The authority scrutinises about 10 per cent of exam syllabuses each year.

John Dunford, former president of the Secondary Heads Association and head of Durham Johnston School, in Durham, said: "I am appalled that my students may have been put at a disadvantage by this process. Candidates from one sector have been given an advantage in the competitive world of university admissions."