Exam regulator Ofqual wrote to Education Secretary Michael Gove and Ofsted inspectors ahead of this summer’s GCSE results to warn them that grades could fall, according to letters published yesterday.
Chief regulator Glenys Stacey said Ofqual was applying a new approach to GCSEs to prevent “grade inflation” and acknowledged that it would create concern in schools.
She warned Mr Gove that using the “comparable outcomes” approach would make it harder for results to rise across the English school system in future – even if pupils’ performances got better.
But she said experts saw it as the best way of stopping the consistent upwards trajectory in GCSE scores, which Ofqual believed undermined public confidence in the system.
The revelations are likely to further fuel anger in the grading row which on Wednesday saw an alliance of state and private schools, teaching unions and local authority education bosses formed to demand an independent inquiry into the furore which saw pupils who submitted the same standard of work getting different grades.
The group said it has lost confidence in Ofqual and does not feel the exams regulator should lead an investigation itself.
It has also launched a petition for the issue to be debated in Parliament. The action comes amid concern that tens of thousands of pupils were unfairly penalised by the altering of grade boundaries in GCSE English between January and June.
Last month’s results showed the proportion of pupils gaining grades A to C at GCSE falling for the first time in the exam’s 24-year history.
There was particular anger over English exams after it emerged grade boundaries had been changed, though an Ofqual review found the papers were correctly marked.
Writing to Mr Gove on August 22, the day before results came out, Ms Stacey said the comparable outcomes approach had halted grade inflation in A-levels since its introduction in 2010 and was expected to have “a similar impact” on GSCE results this year.
“It is our job to make sure results are right,” Ms Stacey told Mr Gove.
“It is not credible that the year-on-year rises in top grades over the last 20 years are solely down to real improvements in attainment. We think this pattern undermines public confidence in results and in the qualifications themselves.”
She acknowledged that one consequence of the new approach was that “it can make it harder for any genuine increases in the performance of students to be fully reflected in the results”.
In a separate letter to Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw a week earlier, Ms Stacey wrote: “One consequence of this approach is that it is less likely that schools as a whole will be able to evidence improvement with better exam results year after year. Unlike in past years, we do not expect to see year-on-year increases in attainment.
“We are confident that we can justify this approach, given our objective to secure standards.
“But we recognise that it will create concerns at schools and it will have implications for you, given that exam results are part of the evidence base that you use in inspecting and reporting on schools.”
Meanwhile, the new alliance said the decision to join together showed the “strength of feeling against a transparently unjust procedure that grades students inconsistently for the same exam”.
They argue grading changes will have “massive implications” for schools and pupils who could be left in limbo over sixth-form places, or at risk of losing out on apprenticeships or future university places.