State and independent school headteachers met with education secretary Michael Gove last week to try to thrash out a solution to claims of poor quality and inconsistent marking of GCSE and A level examinations.
The move follows a report published last month by the HMC, the organisation representing public school heads, which criticised a “deteriorating national industry of public examinations”.
The study, England’s ‘Examination Industry’: Deterioration and decay, found deep-rooted problems with quality and consistency of marking, and problems with the appeals process.
Last week’s meeting was led by HMC, but also included the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association of Head Teachers.
It is a separate issue to the on-going row between Ofqual, the examinations watchdog, and schools and local authorities over the marking of last summer’s GCSE English papers, which saw tens of thousands of candidates receiving lower than expected grades.
An HMC spokeswoman said Mr Gove welcomed the findings of the report, and agreed there was a need to tackle immediate problems. The meeting agreed that longer-term plans needed to be laid to bring about improving the skills of the examiner workforce. The heads re-asserted their view that, at present, marking was neither sufficiently accurate nor fair, and appeals procedures were inadequate.
It was agreed that the associations, led by HMC, would supply Mr Gove and Ofqual with a long-term plan of action that would ensure that students’ papers are marked fairly and accurately.
In 2011/12, more than four out of 10 teachers said that they had had to rely on the “enquiries about results” procedure – meaning they needed to make a formal complaint – to secure accurate marks or grades for their students.
Dr Christopher Ray, HMC chairman and high master of Manchester Grammar School, said: “It was clear that the secretary of state shares our sense of concern as to the seriousness of the situation. With our colleagues representing headteachers in state-maintained schools, we will provide him with a realistic and accurate assessment of what needs to be done next to start on the long road back to better examining of the work of young people in public examinations.”
The report found year-on-year variations in grades awarded in the same subjects and unexplained boundary changes to previously stable subjects. There were also “significant and widespread variations” between awarding bodies and “unexplained variations” between some key subjects at the number of top grades awarded at A level.
Brian Lightman, ASCL’s general secretary, said: “We had a very full and frank discussion with the secretary of state about the report’s findings and how we can take our concerns forward.
“Any reforms of the exams system will be a disaster unless we address the fundamental problems of marks and moderating. Mr Gove appeared to take on board our concerns and understood the implications of the report’s findings. It is in everyone’s interests to sort out these problems as soon as possible.”