Which is the bigger worry?


Michael Gove is giving evidence to the Select Committee today on the GCSE grading controversy. My guess is that he will simply argue that these matters are best dealt with by the experts and both the exam boards and Ofqual the regulator are entirely independent of him. If he has criticised grade inflation and the lack of robustness in the GCSE that is his job and he has made no secret of the fact that he wants the GCSE fundamentally reformed ,precisely because of the deficiencies revealed during the grading controversy.

But perhaps a bigger problem is the haemorrhaging confidence in the marking system for exams, both GCSE and A level,  because of inconsistencies and errors due to the   subjective element within the system . If you want some measure of the scale of the worries I suggest you  talk to parents whose children have received their A level results this year and take a look at this letter to the Times (12 September) from the Head of Roedean, Frances King:

Sir, An area representative for one of the five exam boards phoned our school last week to ask why we have made so many A-level re-mark requests: apparently Roedean and Eton are top of the league on this one. We responded by saying that it was largely due to a lack of confidence in the marking system.

To date, the score this year from a cohort of 95 students is that nine grades have been revised upwards: one up from D to C, one up from C to B, and a crucial seven from A to A*, with one of these noting an increase of 10 UMS marks on one paper. We have just received back an A-level script in which the examiner had failed to mark one entire question.  These re-marks affect the future of my students: for two students the move from A to A* was essential if they were to gain a place at their first-choice university and this will be the case for many others. A consultation on changes to the A-level system, led by Ofqual, closed yesterday. Within the consultation document, A Level Reform Consultation, it is stated: “During the marking season, they [exam boards] need to have in place checks to make sure that markers’ work is consistent and of high quality.”I would like to see included to this list the word “accurate”. Ofqual may be planning a host of excellent changes for A levels, but unless public confidence is restored in the basic ability of the exam boards to mark accurately this will be a wasted effort.’

Having seen two children through the system and out the other end it is deeply depressing that not much seems to have changed over the last five years. I remember challenging results in papers  that were wildly out of kilter with predictions and being largely vindicated ,although challenging Coursework results proved impossible.



  1. The pursuit of accuracy is an oxymoron in any marking system where there is any element of subjectivity*. This includes the majority of subjects with the arguable exception of mathematics.

    All that can be achieved is some measure of reliability. This involves the following features:(a) an excellent marking scheme, (b) experience in, plus a track record of BLIND double marking by markers in the particular subject (c) an appropriate and consistent time envelope in which the marker actually conducts the marking(d) a robust system of extensive and appropriate moderation (e) hopefully, a detailed understanding of the application and implications of post assessment statistical measures.

    All these elements require resources of both time and money. My memory, maybe out of date now, of what markers are actually paid per script, is frankly derisory. When you add to this the requirement for training/continuing staff development – the cost is astronomical.

    *Should anyone doubt the influence of subjectivity – let me give the example of a marking exercise I used to illustrate this in GCSE Biology. This was the first page of a past paper completed by my daughter then a ‘mock’ candidate. When given to different groups of teachers (all with Honours degrees in Biology) – the marks allocated ranged from 4 through to 8 out of a possible 10. This was their response to one line answers to simple and specific questions, or labelling of simple diagrams.

    • Thanks for your comments. My experience having seen two children right the way through the process is that there are significant inconsistencies, confirmed by us challenging several results that were way outside what was predicted and then being largely vindicated.

  2. All I would add to Penny’s description is that, even within a subject as “subjective” as English Literature, with the right attitude and experience, markers can gain such a high degree of accuracy that their predictions are rarely much awry. (It’s not an oxymoron by the way Penny…habit of years and years marking accurately I’m afraid and being a fan of Donne and Milton 🙂

    However, there are much more worrying practices, by board markers and teachers, which have undermined the entire GCSE and A level process. Have a look at what some of the real teachers have to say about their own experiences and practice recently on Andrew Old’s Blog for example.

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