It was expected to be a good year for GCSE results at Hanham High School. Staff were confidently predicting a more than 80 per cent pass rate at five or more A* to C grades, and a respectable 58 per cent when English and maths were included.
The evening before the results were published Peggy Farrington, the headteacher of the south Gloucestershire school, met with the examinations officer to see how students had fared, in readiness for the arrival of pupils in the morning.
The school’s overall results were excellent. At 86 per cent A* to C grades they were the best ever in the school’s history, and a six percentage point rise on 2011. But closer scrutiny showed a huge discrepancy.
When they looked at the scores including English and mathematics, the proportion of five or more A* to C grades fell to a shocking 37 per cent.
“This is below floor targets. I came out in a cold sweat and didn’t know what to do,” Ms Farrington said. “I felt in a state of sheer panic. Something was very wrong and we had no idea what.”
An analysis revealed the problem lay with Unit 1 of the English results. Slightly more than a third of the 180 pupils in the year 11 cohort had achieved a D grade, many of them borderline cases. But even some pupils predicted Cs and above appeared to have under-achieved.
Furthermore, AQA’s feedback form to Hanham High was fulsome in its praise of how the English GCSE exams had been administered and stated that “high standard was consistent among the sample”. It commended the English department for its “rigorous approach” in including marking and assessment records to examiners and confirmed that “marking was secure and agreed by the moderator”.
Ms Farrington continued: “I called our head of English, who is also an examiner for AQA, to let him know what was going on and I asked him to come into school.
“I felt sick frankly and he was in a state of complete shock. English is an excellent department which performs consistently well. We couldn’t believe this could happen. I’ll never forget his words when he looked at the results – ‘our pupils’ scores have been decimated’, he said.”
Believing it at first to be a clerical error, Ms Farrington contacted the local authority to find out if other schools had been similarly affected but most neighbouring secondaries did not follow the AQA syllabus.
“It was very worrying to think yours is the only school in this situation. It was a sleepless night for some of us.”
It was not until the following morning, on GCSE results day, that it became apparent that this was a nationwide problem. As students came in to get their results, staff greeted them with a heavy heart knowing how much disappointment and shock was coming their way.
Ms Farrington continued: “At first they saw their results and were generally delighted because many had achieved a string of top grades. But then they took at closer look at each subject and that was when reality set in.
“One pupil who was a predicted borderline grade A/B candidate ended up with a grade C because Unit 1 was scored as a D. Another, who achieved C grades in Units 2 and 3, was ungraded in Unit 1. And yet he achieved a B in English literature, which is a harder exam. It did not make sense.
“There was immediate concern from some of the students about their college and 6th form places. We require students to get at least a C in English to get into the 6th form, but in the circumstances we told some of them they could begin their A levels if they re-sat the English exam. What else could we do? These children’s futures were at stake.”
At least one local college has refused places to those who did not achieve a C, leading some Hanham students to return to the school’s 6th form to do their A levels.
For the staff, the debacle has been a nightmare. Quite apart from the sleepless nights and worry, Ms Farrington says a total of nine full working days were spent by her and other senior colleagues, between the publication day and the start of term, trying to sort out the problem and determine which students’ marks had been most significantly affected.
The school now plans to send a sample of around 27 papers back to the board for remarking, some of them from more able candidates who appear to have missed out on top grades.
Other students will have an opportunity to take up Ofqual’s offer of a free re-sit in November.
“We want to be clear that this isn’t about getting our C grades up,” Ms Farrington added. “It is about getting justice for all students who did not achieve the grades they should have got and had worked so hard for. For those who want to re-sit we will offer extra top-up sessions. But what it will mean is more staff time and more resources.”
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.