Fury as Ofqual blames teachers for GCSE grading fiasco

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Furious headteachers have turned against exams watchdog Ofqual after its report into the GCSE English grading fiasco attempted to blame teachers.

The report, published on Friday (November 2), accused schools of over-marking pupils’ controlled assessment work in the clamour for C grades to meet accountability measures.

It said that the system had led to “perverse incentives”, which encouraged teachers to distort their marking and abandon professional principles.

Following the publication of the report, Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief executive, attempted a damage-limitation exercise, stressing it was not the fault of teachers, but the system. However, the findings have been perceived by schools and professionals as blaming them for the situation.

Around 10,000 students missed out on expected C grades in June’s exams because of the decision to dramatically raise grade boundaries. These students would have got Cs in January.

An Ofqual statement said: “Controlled assessment boundaries for the internally marked controlled assessments were set differently in June, when four out of five of all units were submitted and examiners saw over-marking. This meant that the average mark for a piece of work of a particular standard was higher in June than in January, and examiners judging the standard of work set the grade boundaries to reflect that.”

However, angry headteachers speaking to SecEd this week denied that schools had cheated, though some acknowledged that the links between exam grades and accountability were skewing how teachers teach.

In fact, many of the schools where pupils were affected had received moderators’ reports from examination boards praising their marking and stating the exams had been properly administered.

Melvyn Roffe, head of Wymondham College in Norfolk, said: “If over-marking is the problem – and it’s strange they have only just realised it having praised the marking previously – then Ofqual must be admitting that moderation of controlled assessments is inadequate. 

“This is really a shameful smokescreen trying to hide the fact that students who actually did C grade work didn’t get awarded a C grade – the only thing that really matters if you are running an exam system. The rest is nonsense
and politics.”

Another head, who asked not to be named, said: “We were complimented by the moderator about our marking of the English controlled assessments. I sent two members of the English team on every course going to ensure that the coursework was marked accurately. Surely the board have a responsibility to ensure that their moderators ‘moderate’ the marking by schools. I don’t see how this can all be our fault now.”

Peggy Farrington, head of Hanham High School in south Gloucestershire, one of the 100 schools visited by Ofqual as part of the fact-finding exercise that led to the publication of the report, said:  “We received plaudits from the moderator in respect of our English department’s accuracy. How galling then to read of ‘schools over-marking’. Our head of department was an examiner for AQA and followed their guidance to the letter.

“But it is not surprising that in some schools staff feel under pressure, because of all of this arises out of accountability, particularly Ofsted inspections. If the results do not indicate pupils are making progress in line with expectations, then a school, the teachers and leadership, will receive at best a judgement of ‘requires improvement’ in the new framework. This is the pressure, as schools are increasingly vulnerable to take-overs from academy chains as a consequence of Ofsted judgements, for which the five A* to C measures are critical.”

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said Ofqual’s report was “outrageous”.

He explained: “For Ofqual to suggest that teachers and schools are to blame is outrageous, and flies in the face of the evidence. Ofqual is responsible for ensuring fairness and accuracy in the system. The fact remains that different standards were applied to the exams in June and January and this is blatantly wrong. 

“The accountability measures do place tremendous pressure on teachers and schools, especially at GCSE grade C, but to say that teachers would compromise their integrity to the detriment of students is an insult. We have said for years that there are fundamental problems with having a qualifications system that is also used to hold schools to account. It is asking one set of exams to do too much.

“This was an investigation carried out by a regulator into its own conduct and that of the awarding bodies. The chances of an impartial and accurate assessment were never great, which is why we believe more strongly than ever that there must be an independent investigation into what happened.

“The awarding bodies externally moderate the controlled assessment. There are many examples of schools that were told by the awarding bodies that their grading on controlled assessment was spot on, only to find themselves severely affected by the down-grading.”

Ofqual’s report also said that the grade boundaries for the June examinations were correct and not “unnecessarily tough” and also blamed the modular structure of the examinations as being “especially susceptible to pressures, as teachers strive for the best possible outcomes for their students and school”.

Ms Stacey said: “Our report reinforces the need for strong and independent regulation. We have learnt lessons and found areas where we might have done better. Striking the balance between accountability and qualification design will never be easy. We would welcome wide discussion of these issues in the context of the current accountability review and also the development of new qualifications, including the English Baccalaureate Certificates.”

Andrew Hall, chief executive of awarding body AQA, said: “We will work very hard with teachers, the regulator and the other exam boards to manage the challenges created for all of us by the structure QCA required us to follow for these qualifications. We will also ensure our moderation processes and communications with schools are as effective as they can be.”

The report came as an alliance of schools, individual students, parents and local authorities pressed ahead with legal action against Ofqual and the Edexcel and AQA exam boards in a bid to win a regrading of the summer exams.


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