Wales is in the grip of a new GCSE English exam crisis with hundreds of teachers, unions and politicians voicing their concerns that confidence in the system has been rocked after a sharp dip in exam results.
The Welsh government has ordered an urgent investigation and the WJEC is reviewing marking after students across the country did not get their predicted marks in the January 2014 papers.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has delivered a dossier to education minister Huw Lewis with comments from more than 100 secondary teachers and headteachers who are calling for an urgent resolution to a problem which many fear could spiral out of control.
The dossier cites cases in which pupils and teachers had been left in tears by their results and some schools had employed tactics normally associated with pupil bereavement to deal with the fallout.
One unnamed headteacher said in the dossier that their results were “horrendously at odds” with those received last year and pupils predicted to obtain E grades had outperformed A* candidates.
Another said they were “deeply concerned” after their school’s A* to C pass rate fell woefully short of expectations, from a predicted 56 per cent to just 31 per cent.
Plaid Cymru’s education spokesman Simon Thomas said concerns that some pupils had achieved far worse in their January exams than had been predicted was proof the Welsh government, which regulates papers, had been “caught short” for the second time following the furore in 2012.
Official figures show that 48 out of 292 centres (16.4 per cent) entering pupils in January’s GCSE English language saw an average fall of more than one grade when compared to last year.
A further 69 centres (23.6 per cent) reported an average fall of between a grade and half a grade, while the majority – 140 centres (48 per cent) – recorded a marginal change of less than half a grade.
Following widespread concerns about GCSE English language results in summer 2012, the Welsh government carried out an immediate investigation and the then minister for education and skills ordered a re-grading of the WJEC qualification. Almost 2,400 learners in Wales received revised grades as a consequence.
The investigation led to the introduction of a revised GCSE English language exam for learners in Wales in autumn 2012 which is offered only by WJEC. January this year was the first assessment opportunity. There are four units in the qualification and two were available in January. All four will be available in the summer and that will be the first opportunity for learners to cash-in their unit results and receive a GCSE grade.
Robin Hughes, ASCL’s Cymru secretary, said: “These results are too important to schools, to teachers and, most of all, to pupils for there to be any doubt about them. Experienced heads are saying that the results are far below what was expected. This needs to be looked into quickly so that it does not demotivate pupils just when they are finishing this course and gearing up for summer exams.”
Mr Lewis called for a “cool-headed response” to what has become a heated and highly emotive debate over qualifications and said he would await the findings of a “rapid review” before drawing any conclusions.
He did however raise concerns about the number of learners being entered early for exams. He said the trend was evident in GCSE English in January 2014, where the number of unit entries has increased from under 30,000 in January 2013 to over 37,000 in January 2014.
In an open letter to headteachers, WJEC chief executive Gareth Pierce said it was the board’s responsibility “to ensure that candidates receive the grade their work deserves”. He said a series of “post-exam review meetings” would be held for heads of English at the end of March and in early April at no cost to schools.