Labour slams English exam fiasco as UK government faces legal action threat

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By Bob Duncan

The UK Government is facing legal action in the wake of the fiasco over changes to the marking of this year’s exam papers south of the border.

The legal challenge threat follows modifications to this year’s examination marking that has led to claims of political interference that has left some students being marked lower than they should have been.

According to critics, examinations have been marked more harshly than previously, which may have led to as many as 10,000 candidates in England and Wales being given a D rather than a C grade in this core exam.

When the results were released on Thursday, the proportion of GCSEs – taken by pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – who were awarded an A*-C grade showed a drop for the first time in the 24 years since the exams were first introduced.

Particular fears were raised over GCSE English after it was revealed that grade boundaries had been dramatically raised for teenagers sitting assessments in June compared with those marked in January.  Figures show that pass-rates were raised by as much as 10 per cent in some modules.

On Friday, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), sent an open letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove and Ofqual, the exam regulator in England, suggesting that grade boundaries in English had been “significantly altered” during the year in response to predictions the pass rate would rise again.

The NAHT also said that a separate inquiry into the GCSE grading process was needed to “get to the bottom of what went wrong” and refused to rule out legal action.  They claimed an investigation, to be launched by Ofqual on Tuesday, does not go far enough amid concerns that the exams regulator has its own questions to answer over the affair.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has said it is “not afraid” to take legal action against exam boards over the grade boundary reform.  Last week, the ASCL called on the education secretary to take “immediate and decisive action”.

Ofqual will now look again at the detail of grade C boundary changes over the coming days, to “ensure confidence is maintained in our examinations system”.

General Secretary Brian Lightman said the ASCL, which represents most secondary head teachers in England, “warmly welcomes” the Ofqual announcement. “It is essential that the injustice done to many thousands of young people is put right,” he added.

Education officials at Leeds City Council have announced they are also considering a “legal challenge”.

A statement on the council’s website said: “We do not feel this basic principle of fairness has been adhered to in this case and will be looking with colleagues nationally at the possibility of raising a legal challenge to ensure Ofqual and the government put this right.”

The Labour party has now demanded a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into what they have branded the “GCSE fiasco”.  Any investigation would be expected to look at the pressure Ofqual may have put on individual exam boards to keep grade rises down.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: “Michael Gove needs to take urgent action as pupils may lose out on places in college.  If that means getting exam boards and Ofqual in a room and banging some heads together, he should do that. Pupils must not be treated unfairly.”

However, the Department for Education (DfE) has defended the reforms and attempted to distance itself from the decision.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Ofqual is the independent exams regulator. Its job is to make sure that standards are maintained over time and that students receive the grades that they deserve. That’s why we have strengthened Ofqual’s powers to make sure the system is robust and rigorous and to give the public real confidence in the results.”

The controversy over GCSE grade changes south of the border has highlighted the contrasts between decisions made in Scotland and those made by Westminster, says SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell, Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee.

Mr Maxwell said: “The furore over exam results in England and falling student numbers only highlights the folly of letting Westminster make decisions for Scotland.

“Thanks to having effective independence over our education policy in the Scottish Parliament, we have an exam system not facing allegations of political interference and a university policy based on ability to learn, not ability to pay.

“The result has seen student numbers going up in Scotland, while they are plunging in England due to Tory cuts.

Scottish Higher exam results saw a record number of Scottish students accepted at that point to Scottish universities.  Two weeks later, the latest figures showed that Scottish Higher Education remained resilient with student numbers going up in Scotland.

However, in England, there has been infighting over allegations of political interference in the exam system as well as a significant drop in both acceptances and student numbers.

Commenting on the reasons for this discrepancy between student numbers on both sides of  the border, Mr Maxwell said: “Higher results day saw record numbers of Scottish students accepted at that point to Scottish universities.

“More than two weeks later, the latest figures show that Scottish Higher Education has remained resilient in the face of significant drops in acceptances elsewhere in the UK, following the Westminster government’s decision to charge £9,000 fees for all students.

“Scotland is the only country to see an increase in the number of young people applying for courses as well as the highest number of students ever accepted into our universities on Higher results day.  This is a clear vindication of our policy of no tuition fees with Scotland an increasingly attractive place to undertake a university career.

“Thank goodness Scotland can make independent decisions that affect our education system instead of leaving them to a Westminster government embroiled in controversy.  Only with independence will Scotland be able to stop the fall-out from Westminster policies such as increased tuition fees affecting Scottish decisions.”

 

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