GCSE English verdict: Worried teachers ask what will happen with this year's exams?

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After the High Court decision not to order a re-grade of last summer's English GCSE examinations, teachers and heads raise concerns about the consequences for this year’s English students.

Headteachers have expressed fears over the marking of this year’s English GCSEs after the High Court refused to order a re-grade of the summer’s results, despite acknowledging students had been treated unfairly.

School leaders say the verdict has left the system in chaos and teachers in confusion.

They believe that the decision not to order the re-grading of up to 10,000 scripts or apportion any blame or responsibility to exams watchdog Ofqual or the awarding bodies has given carte blanche for grade boundaries to be altered at will in the future.

Furthermore, the decision has left teachers unsure what score now constitutes a grade C and how best they can prepare their students to meet this important benchmark.

The High Court case was brought by an alliance of headteachers, local authorities, individual students and teaching unions after it emerged that a shift in grade boundaries meant that the summer 2012 GCSE English candidates needed to achieve higher marks to get a C grade than those who sat the examination in January last year.

After two months of deliberation, two judges last week ruled that Ofqual had done the best it could with a qualification that had been structured unfairly.

Lord Justice Elias said it was “the structure of the qualification itself which is the source of such unfairness ... and not any unlawful action” by the exams regulator or exam boards.

But he accepted that the summer’s results had been a “matter of widespread and genuine concern” and that the alliance had been right to bring the case.

Many of the students affected subsequently failed to get college places or Apprenticeships as they had not achieved the English grade required.

But the High Court decision has left many teachers reeling at the prospect of a similar situation arising this summer. They believe that unless they have some idea of what is required for a C grade, they will not know how much targeted support some students may need or how reliable their data and tracking systems are.

Kenny Frederick, principal of George Green’s School in east London, one of the heads who spearheaded the legal challenge, said: “We cannot trust Ofqual or the examining boards and now we have no idea what they are going to do in the future if a similar situation arises. The ruling has effectively said that they can change grade boundaries as they see fit.

“This is going to make it very difficult for teachers to predict grades for their students. How are they supposed to prepare their pupils properly? 

“The judge said the problem lay in the design of the examination but we didn’t design it and neither did the students. No-one seems to have taken any responsibility for what has happened and no-one is being held accountable. The exam boards design the qualifications but Ofqual oversees and sanctions them, yet the outcome (has) exonerated both.”

Meanwhile, some schools have admitted they are looking at other examinations because of a lack of confidence in the existing system. At Hanham High School in South Gloucestershire, a sample of students has just trialled the iGCSE in English as an alternative to the traditional GCSE.

Head Peggy Farrington said: “Our head of English is an examiner with one of the awarding bodies and he said he marked last summer in accordance with the guidance and using all his professional judgement. But, once again this year, he won’t know what happens to those marks once the papers have left him. Our confidence in the examinations system, in Ofqual and the awarding bodies is much reduced by last summer’s marking fiasco and the subsequent High Court ruling. We are now very wary and very worried.

“I believe many schools will now be looking around for alternatives as we just can’t put our students through this sort of scenario again.”

Meanwhile, Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, said that the High Court ruling had left many unanswered questions, including why the exam boards got it so wrong and why the Ofqual inquiry blamed teachers for the discrepancy in the marking.

He added: “English teachers are going to find it hard to advise current students on what to do to get a C – it’s a decision, it seems, that resides in the back-offices of faceless bureaucrats fiddling with their spreadsheets. Our students deserve better.”

A spokeswoman for Ofqual said it was for the examination boards to set grade boundaries.

She added: “The boundaries are set after the exams are taken every year. Nothing is ever set in stone and sometimes the boundaries remain broadly the same year-on-year and sometimes they differ.”

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