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Appeal? Might as well

The revelation that the number of individual enquires about GCSE and A level results rose by 48%, this year compared to 2013, with a 42% rise in the number of grades changed, over the same period, comes as no surprise to me.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30449095

Every August a disheartened Head of Department appears in my office needing encouragement and reassurance having discovered that the departmental examination results are below their forecasts and expectations.  Disappointment quickly turns to rage a few days later as copies of the students’ scripts are returned from the examination board, pored over and marked by the Head of Department.  The conclusion is often that the mark scheme has not been properly applied, usually for the most able students who have gained A or B grades instead of the A* or A predicted.  Sometimes the original examiner’s comments can be unearthed and show worrying errors in process or understanding.  An extensive series of re-mark enquiries, strongly argued cases and bad-tempered appeals to managers successively higher in the examination board hierarchy usually produce an increase in official marks and grades over the coming weeks but the damage is done.  Students are demoralised and understandably, though unfairly, doubt their teachers’ ability to prepare them properly for the examination or to accurately forecast a grade.  For students taking AS examinations they may already have decided to drop a subject based on the original results and when they achieve the originally forecast A grade it is too late to change course.  At A level, university places may be at stake although last summer students found it so easy to gain entry into even prestigious universities on grades well below the offer level that fortunately little practical difference was made.
 
My advice to parents and perturbed Heads of Department is always to appeal if they feel that there has been any sort of problem with the marking; unless the student is only just above a grade boundary the chance of going down a grade on re-mark is vanishingly small.  This may seem a cynical attitude but I would prefer to class it as weary realism after numerous incidents have shaken my faith in the examination system to deliver.  The problem appears particularly acute in the humanities, in which mark schemes are difficult to apply, and is most pronounced with more able students who sometimes appear to have greater knowledge and skill than their examiners.  I have seen many brilliant answers marked down because they fail to conform to a rigid mark scheme.  The points made are often equivalent to those on the published scheme but display such articulate sophistication that the markers may simply not have understood the answer. 
 
These issues matter.  The life chances of students and the various league table and school accountability measure all rely on accurate grading of students’ work.
 
What can be done?  There seems little doubt that the examination boards are struggling to recruit a large enough number of examiners of sufficient calibre and no amount of training and moderation can overcome this fundamental deficiency.  The problems are likely to get worse with the introduction of the new A level courses which place greater emphasis on a small number of terminal examination papers with harder, longer questions requiring students to write at a higher level than currently. 
 
The current model of several commercial examination boards competing for business from schools may be a hindrance; competition may lower public examination entrance fees but encourages the examination boards to reduce the marking fees paid to examiners to a level below that necessary to tempt suitably qualified candidates to participate.  In addition the examination boards surely feel pressure to give more top grades, either initially or on appeal, in order to encourage schools to use their examinations or to retain the schools they already have.  Further, it renders direct comparison between the results from the same subject, administered by different examination boards, very difficult.  The regulator OfQual makes the right noises but little seems to change.  As in many fields of public life the choice of how to guarantee standards seems to lie between commercial operators regulated by a government agency and a state-run examinations board with an explicit agenda for reliability.  There seems little appetite currently to move away from the former.  I suspect that commercial lobbying and ideological pressures will prevent the government from establishing a single examination board or from dividing the different subjects up between the existing examination boards so that only one syllabus is available for each subject; either of these reforms would ensure a desirable concentration of the available examiner talent. 
 
Encouraging practising teachers to become examiners would help; relatively few do so currently because of the time pressures of the day job.  Recently retired teachers are a useful pool of expertise but the numbers of candidates are insufficient. 
 
On-screen marking where scripts are scanned and dispatched electronically to markers allows quicker moderation and more robust quality control and may offer an avenue for improvement.  (Tales of scripts being marked in other countries are hard to verify but the temptation for an overwhelmed examination board to enlist help abroad must be considerable.)  It also allows different portions of a script to be marked by different people, reducing the risk that a marker’s judgement will be affected by an excellent or dreadful answer earlier in the paper. 
 
The examination boards retort that the marking of only around 4% of papers is challenged.  This may conceal a larger problem with many schools lacking the time, effort and sheer determination necessary to put in the appeals.  In any case, as with most statistics, this offers no consolation to the affected individual.

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