11 Sep 2012

Ofqual ‘urged exam board to change GCSE grades’

Ofqual admits raising concerns with exam boards, after leaked letters show that the exam regulator questioned an exam board’s GCSE English results and ultimately overruled the grades it awarded.

The regulator wrote to Edexcel in early August amid concerns there would be a rise in C grades and called on the board to produce results that were closer to the predictions.

Edexcel responded by saying there was “compelling evidence” that its original awards were “fair”. But Ofqual insisted that the board was obliged to ensure results were consistent with other exam boards, adding: “It is for you to decide how that is achieved.”

The letters leaked to the Times Educational Supplement (TES) emerged ahead of an education select committee hearing which was called to investigate whether this year’s GCSE English exams were marked down.

GCSE grades went down in 2012 for the first time in 21 years, and headteachers say that thousands of pupils missed on a C grade because of changes to the exams and the marking system.

At the education select committee hearing, Ofqual Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey was asked why she failed to anticipate problems when a new exam was introduced, to which she said there were too many “unknowns” involved in the English exams sat in June.

Ms Stacey told MPs that Ofqual had contacted Edexcel and the WJEC in Wales because their results were too high. “If the provisional results had been left to stand I think we were looking at 6 per cent or 7 per cent inflation and I suspect there would have been a different outcry had that been the outcome,” she said. “They were certainly out of line with the other awarding body results.”

Ofqual chair Amanda Spielman said she thought schools would have been more “cautious” in their grade predictions.

At the committee hearing, Ms Stacey denied there had been any political interference from the department of education, and said Ofqual would release all correspondence between Education Secretary Michael Gove and Ofqual, as requested by shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg.

‘Major flaws’

Ofqual’s own investigation into the fiasco found that the grade boundaries were set correctly

However Ms Stacey has faced called to resign. John Townsley, a headteacher and former Ofqual board member said that Ms Stacey’s position had become “untenable”.

Before Ofqual’s evidence, the headteachers’ union leader, Brian Lightman, told the committee that there were “major flaws” and unfairness in the marking of this year’s English GCSE exams. ASCL president Mike Griffiths added that he knew of no other issue that had united the NUT, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), academy chains and local authorities.

Overall, 63.9 per cent of GCSE English exams were awarded at least a C, a 1.5 per cent drop on the year before.

Read more: The full correspondence between Ofqual and Edexcel as seen by TES

Edexcel’s concerns over ‘predictions’

According to the letters seen by the TES, Ofqual’s director of standards, Dennis Opposs wrote to Edexcel on 7 August raising concerns that the board’s results would mean the proportion of pupils awarded a C grade would be eight percentage points higher than predicted.

It called on the board to act quickly to produce outcomes that are closer to predictions. “This may require you to move grade boundary marks further than might normally be required,” he wrote.

Edexcel replied the next day warning that the grade predictions cited by Ofqual, which are based on pupils’ SATS results at age 11, “can only be, at best, an indicator of performance.” Other factors such as changes in the year group and the new, modular exams system also have to be taken into account, it added.

It said that if Ofqual still wanted an alteration, the board could move the minimum requirement for a C grade for one of the English units up to 65 marks out of 96 – 10 marks higher than in January when it stood at 55. Ofqual’s final response said the board was obliged to ensure its results were consistent with other boards.