Chris Bridge: Has the system reached breaking point?

If students do not have confidence in a fair marking system, why stay on? Why study?
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The Independent Online

Even this year, A-Level Results Day seemed to be going well. The usual pale faces came into the hall to pick up their results. Reluctant hands stretched out for the envelopes and hesitant feet moved students away to the corners of the room before they could bring themselves to come face to face with such momentous information as their own A-level results. This is a moment of real stress for individuals. In those seconds they learn which university they will be going to. Getting each A-level result right really matters.

Even this year, A-Level Results Day seemed to be going well. The usual pale faces came into the hall to pick up their results. Reluctant hands stretched out for the envelopes and hesitant feet moved students away to the corners of the room before they could bring themselves to come face to face with such momentous information as their own A-level results. This is a moment of real stress for individuals. In those seconds they learn which university they will be going to. Getting each A-level result right really matters.

For most of our students, even this year, it was all right. They glanced, checked, smiled, hugged others and took out their mobile phones. The strained silence was transformed into glee which quickly moved outside the hall into the thin August sunshine. It was only 10 minutes later that we began to realise that something was wrong; and I, for one, do not feel that the full scale of the problem has yet been understood. I do not have a full national picture but, in what happened to pupils in this school on that day, I can read the signs of an exam system that has had so much asked of it that it is creaking badly.

First was Matt (not his real name). He had an A for media studies and that was all right, but he still wanted to know why he had a U for one part of his exam. Matt is the sort of pupil who has never had a U for anything. His marks on the other papers were such good A grades that his overall grade had stayed at an A. "How can that be right?" he asked. Then the head of design technology wanted to see me because his results were down and the average mark for one paper achieved across the country was three marks below the E grade. Course-work marks for a very high-achieving department had been slashed by two grades. "It makes no sense," he said.

The Examination Officer came to see me next. He had never had a worse results morning. It is hard enough to get results into envelopes when you have just one set of results, but some boards had sent two different sets that arrived in the same post, one of which was a revision of the other set. Some results were also missing. I took the opportunity to ask him if we had been sent the results of the total remark of the English Year 9 Sats, which we requested when we had been faced by a sudden 20 per cent slide in these results earlier in the summer. "Not yet," he said.

Then there were the ICT (information and communications technology) key skills results. Huntington School is not perfect but we do achieve very good results. Under the old system we had achieved 24-plus A-level points in each of the past seven years. We always feature in The Independent's August list of top comprehensive schools. The ICT key skills results for Year-12 students showed that we had achieved an astonishing 100 per cent failure rate.

The pupils didn't collect these key skills results on the results day in August, so we had to break this news to them in assembly in September when they returned. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry about such ridiculous results. The students knew: they laughed. And it is their laughter which worries me most, because it is deeply corrosive of the whole of the education system. If students do not have confidence in a fair. just and justifiable marking system, why stay on? Why study?

For me this exam crisis is not an issue limited to private schools and what Qualifications and Curriculum Authority may or may not have told the boards and whether the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, knew.

This crisis will not be solved by a national re-mark of A-levels. It is much wider and more dangerous. As a country we have insisted on more and more public examinations, which are nationally marked. We now have Sats in Year 6 and in Year 9, GCSEs in Year 11. We have AS and key skills in Year 12 and a new A2 system in Year 13.

The examination system is being overwhelmed at a time when it is finding it harder to recruit moderators and markers and simply cannot cope. I know this is the case, as last year an admittedly excellent, newly qualified teacher was begged to become an exam moderator in a subject he had taught for four months, and that he hadn't even trained in on his PGCE (post-graduate certificate of education) course!

Any independent enquiry must go beyond the A-level results and ask whether any examination board system can cope scrupulously with this overburden of national examinations. It is worth recalling that we got into this mess when we stopped trusting teachers to mark more of their own students' work.

c.bridge@huntington-ed.org.uk

The writer is the headteacher of Huntington School, York

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