Alliance steps up legal threat in grading row


An unprecedented alliance of students, schools, local authorities and teaching unions has stepped up its threat of legal action over the grade boundary changes that led to thousands of students getting lower than expected GCSE scores.

An unprecedented alliance of students, schools, local authorities and teaching unions has stepped up its threat of legal action over the grade boundary changes that led to thousands of students getting lower than expected GCSE scores.

In all, 180 pupils, 113 schools, 35 local authorities and seven professional education organisations are involved in the action, which is seeking that grades awarded for the GCSE English language paper in June, are brought into line with those awarded in January.

The action is being spearheaded by the London Borough of Lewisham which has written to Ofqual, the exams watchdog and two awarding bodies, threatening to take the matter to the High Court. 

The Pre-Action Letter, written in accordance with the Pre-Action Protocol for Judicial Review, gives Ofqual and two exam boards, AQA and Edexcel, seven days to respond before legal action begins. This deadline will fall on Friday (September 28).

The alliance states: “It is inconceivable that two cohorts of students enrolled for the same course in the same academic year, who have undertaken the same work and invested the same effort, and who will be competing in future for the same opportunities, should be subjected to such radically different standards of assessment and award.”

Ofqual confirmed it has received correspondence about proposed legal action. A spokeswoman said: “The matter is now in the hands of our lawyers and we will respond in due course.”

Among the allegations made is that the changing of boundaries was “conspicuously unfair and/or an abuse of power”, irrational and “in contravention of the cardinal principle of good administration that all persons who are in a similar position should be fairly treated; and taken in breach of both the public sector equalities duty and the Human Rights Act 1998”.

Last month, Ofqual stated there had been no problems with the marking of papers taken in June but suggested the January cohort may have been marked too leniently and offered the summer candidates the chance to re-sit in November.

In Wales nearly 2,400 teenagers are having their grades increased as a result of an order by the Welsh Assembly government to the country’s exam board, the WJEC (see here for an update).

Back in England, one of the pupils affected is Jonathan Clarke, a student at St Matthew Academy in Blackheath, who achieved 12 GCSEs – two A*s, four As, two Bs, three Cs and a D in English. 

He said: “I worked hard for a C grade in English and it has been taken away from me right at the end. That is just not fair. I am now having to redo the course with a different exam board over the next year at the same time as doing four A levels.” 

His headteacher, Michael Barry said: “Jonathan is one of 31 students from our school who has suffered in this way. He is a hard-working, conscientious student. It is obvious that something is very wrong here.”

The grade boundaries for the GCSE English foundation paper were changed for a C award by 10 marks in the period between January and June this year – a move that the alliance has described as “totally unprecedented”.

In Lewisham alone, 163 pupils have been left with D grades who, had they sat the exam in January, would have got a C, a situation that is believed to be mirrored in every authority in the country. Schools and students relied on the published January grade boundaries in preparing for the June exams.

According to the Pre-Action correspondence, candidates sitting the English paper this summer had to get 17 per cent more marks that their peers who sat it in January, to achieve the same grade. This meant that the summer candidates had been treated with “conspicuous unfairness” and were “materially prejudiced against”.

It also claims that neither Ofqual nor AQA had provided any empirical or objective evidence to support the claim that January’s candidates had been marked too generously. 

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This legal challenge is essentially about fairness. Young people only have one chance at a good education and it is absolutely wrong that 16-year-olds this year are ending up paying for mistakes made by adults who should know better. This is about putting right the errors that were made by Ofqual and the awarding bodies in this year’s exams.” 

Stephen Twigg MP, shadow education secretary, also offered his support to campaigners. “Michael Gove looks increasingly isolated and out of touch,” he said. “He has sacrificed thousands of young people’s futures who just want the chance to continue studying.

“We know it’s possible to sort this mess because it has already happened in Wales. It’s time for a regrade and then an independent inquiry into this whole fiasco.”


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