Education Quandary'

'My son and his friends are taking A-levels this summer but feel cynical about marking, saying that there is no guarantee that last summer's fiasco won't be repeated. What can I say to reassure them?'

Hilary Wilce
Saturday 18 January 2014 05:32


This is what the watchdog of the examinations world, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), says you should say. That:

* more guidance has been given to exam boards to make sure they know the requirements for each grade

* new rules mean that grading disagreements will be reported earlier to the regulator

* a QCA examinations task force will oversee the secure delivery of the summer exams

* more money has been given to exam boards to recruit more markers

* marking centres have been set up so that centralised marking can take place

* every script will be marked (weren't they always?)

* a booklet – The Official Guide to A-levels – explaining how the exams are marked and graded will be available in WH Smith from May.

Against this you must set the fact that the chief executive of the QCA himself, Ken Boston, has described our exam system as "a Victorian cottage industry" that needs dragging into the 21st century if it is to cope with the tens of millions of scripts that now fly around each summer.

Markers are in short supply. Trainee teachers have been doing the job for several years now. And in every other way the massive edifice has been inflated to bursting point. System failure may have been averted for the moment, but the potential for glitches remains huge.

There are now far too many national tests and exams in our school system. Some of them must go, and the sooner the better. And much more marking needs to be done in-house, or rather in-school, with external moderators to check standards.

Last year's A-level fiasco made us all face up to where exam scripts go once they leave schools: not into a streamlined marking system, where precise grades are given to each carefully scrutinised paper, but into a messy, over-stretched, human network where judgements are questionable and flaws abound.

So your son and his friends have every right to feel cynical about the public pronouncements that everything is all right now. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. Embarking on adult life believing everything that the politicians and pundits tell you would be naïveté bordering on simple-mindedness.


When my children complain about what they perceive to be "unfair" marking, I try to resolve the individual issue, but also to help them to understand the bigger picture. The reason they are doing any of this schoolwork is not just to receive a pat on the back from a teacher, but to create in themselves a template for hard work and efficiency. These qualities, which will bring success and happiness in later life, are learnt here and now, by honest application. Whether or not their true qualities are recognised by teachers or examiners doesn't matter, so long as they have made themselves into people who will be happy and successful.

Peter Groome, Bristol

Surely it is the job of the exam boards to explain to schools how the system has been improved since last year, and the job of the school to pass this on to students? And if they haven't, doesn't it show they have no idea of the long-term damage to confidence that their incompetency has done? Why should parents be expected to repair the damage done to their children?

Fay Hindley, Birmingham

Exams are a lottery. They can never be fair. Being expected to perform well for a couple of hours on one particular day takes no account of what else is going on in students' lives, nor is it something most of them will ever have to do in adult life. The system obviously favours those who have a good memory over those that don't, even though memory has nothing to do with intelligence. A system of continuous assessment, without exams, would be much better.

Nigel Woods, Lincolnshire


I teach Year Five in a primary school, and have a boy in my class whose stammer is getting noticeably worse. At the beginning of the year it was quite mild, but now it is stopping him making contributions to lessons. I want to encourage his parents to get him treatment, but don't feel that I can talk to them until I know more about what might be possible.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 5 May, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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