REFORMS to GCSEs and A-levels will amount to nothing more than “houses built on sand” if the Government fails to tackle “shocking” failings in the way exams are marked and grades awarded, heads of leading independent schools have warned.
Proposals to overhaul public examinations announced by the Government are welcome but are almost certain to be undermined by long-standing problems such as poor quality marking and unsatisfactory awarding of grades by exam boards, a report by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) said.
The organisation detailed what it claims are failings in the “examinations industry” in England, including “inexplicable inconsistencies” in awarding of grades, “erratic and inconsistent” marking and an obstructive approach to appeals between 2007 and 2012.
Schools have received “unexplained” and “very large” variations in the percentage of grades given to successive years of pupils in the same GCSE and A-level subject, in spite of the subject being taught by a stable teams of staff to students of similar ability, the report said.
The HMC added that exam boards were too secretive in their approach to challenges from schools. The organisation, which represents the heads of more than 250 schools in the rest of the UK, said many of its members had “voted with their feet” in the face of the problems, with a surge in members opting for international GCSEs.
“Every year many thousands of students in England are awarded the wrong grade in one or more of their GCSE or A-level examinations...This arises in the main from a fact that all of the main examination boards concede in private - the quality of marking is not good enough.”
The scathing assessment follows widespread complaints from schools over the grading of this year’s GCSE English exams after it emerged that English grading boundaries had been altered between January and June. Eight councils and more than 20 schools across Yorkshire are part of a national legal challenge of these results.
Headteachers predicted that thousands of pupils had been affected by the move, with concerns centring around those who were expected to get a C grade but ended up with a D.
The HMC said its report aimed to highlight the problems that schools routinely faced in attempting to secure the correct grades for their pupils across a range of subjects.
Christopher Ray, high master of Manchester Grammar School and chairman of the HMC, said: “The state of the examinations industry is truly shocking and is clearly no longer fit for purpose. The problems go far deeper than this year’s disastrous mishandling of the English language GCSE grades.
“We are publishing this evidence today on behalf of all students in state and independent schools in England who do not receive the marks or grades that accurately reflect their performance and achievement.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We have been clear that the exams system is in desperate need of a thorough overhaul.“That’s why we are consulting on EBaccs, new, more rigorous exams for 16-year-olds, and why we are reforming A-levels, with universities and employers responsible for their design.
“We agree with HMC that there are serious problems with marking and quality control.”