GCSE students were victims of ‘fix’ says QC

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THOUSANDS of students who were awarded lower than expected results in this summer’s GCSE English exams were the victims of “illegitimate grade manipulation” and a “statistical fix”, the High Court was told as a long awaited legal battle got underway.

The accusation came from a QC representing an alliance of pupils, schools, local councils and teaching unions, who have united to mount an unprecedented legal action.

The alliance is challenging a move by the AQA and Edexcel exam boards to raise the boundary needed to get a grade C between January and June, as well as the actions of England’s exams regulator Ofqual.

It follows a massive row after this summer’s GCSE results when it emerged that pupils submitting the same standard of work would have achieved different grades depending on when it was assessed.

The alliance claims that legally flawed decision-making led to an estimated 10,000 pupils who sat exams in June missing out on a C grade, and is asking for papers taken this summer to be regraded.

Leeds City Council has played a key role in the legal challenge which also includes Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale, Doncaster, Hull, Leeds, Kirklees, Rotherham, Sheffield, Wakefield and York Councils and more than 20 schools from the region.

A delegation from Leeds was in court yesterday for the first day of the hearing, including councillor Judith Blake, the executive member for children and young people’s services and Chris Walsh, headteacher of Boston Spa School.

Clive Sheldon QC, appearing for the alliance, told two judges it was not the fault of students, who had “worked well and hard”, that they had received the lower grades.

He said the evidence of unfairness was overwhelming. Students were the victims of a radical change in grade boundaries that occurred without warning.

Mr Sheldon said Ofqual had given an instruction to avoid “grade inflation”, and bodies awarding grades were required to meet “tolerances” set by Ofqual based on statistical predictions derived from students’ performances in key Stage two examinations five years previously.

Schools, teachers and students had reasonably expected that those sitting the June examinations would be treated consistently with students who had earlier taken papers and submitted controlled assessments, argued Mr Sheldon.

The boards and Ofqual knew at the time of the publication of the January marks that this reasonable expectation might be disturbed but did nothing to alert schools, teachers and students that radical changes might occur in the summer, he said.

Mr Sheldon told Lord Justice Elias and Mrs Justice Sharp, sitting in London, there could be no doubt that there was “grade manipulation” by the examination boards to meet Ofqual’s “statistical fix” and this amounted to an unlawful abuse of power.

He argued the June students should be put in the position they would have been in had the grade boundaries in January been applied to them. The boards and Ofqual deny they acted unlawfully or unfairly.

Members of the alliance angered by the lower grades say they were the result of statistical predictions which indicated that too many students were going to get a C grade or better in GCSE English.

As a result a decision was taken to push up grade boundaries for the exams marked in June to bring down the numbers of good grades for the year as a whole.

Before the start of yesterday’s hearing in a packed court, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Now that we have looked at all the evidence and made final preparations for the court case, we remain certain that it is the right thing to do.

“We are quietly optimistic about the outcome. Thousands of young people in England were unfairly downgraded in June in order to compensate for mistakes made earlier in the year. The only fair course of action for these students is to regrade the papers.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said England should have followed the lead of the Welsh government, which, in the wake of the fiasco, ordered that papers be re-graded. “It is a great shame that we find ourselves in this position,” she said.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: “The GCSE English debacle has affected the lives of thousands of young people whose futures have been altered by a statistical aberration. We hope the courts will see sense and order a regrade, thus giving those who sat the exam the result they deserve.”

In a report published last month, Ofqual concluded that some teachers were guilty of “significantly” over-marking papers amid pressure to produce good results. It said this overmarking had led to exam boards having to move the grade boundaries.

Teaching unions and head teachers reacted angrily to the suggestion, with some arguing their marking had been verified and praised by moderators.

Earlier Ofqual told the House of Commons Education Select Committee that GCSE grade boundaries in January had been too lenient but those used in the summer had been fair.

The case continues.