Ofqual agrees that the system incentivises teachers to mark pupils course work ‘optimistically’

Accountability measures drives teachers ‘to predict and manage grade outcomes ‘


The league tables focus on the importance of  the  C/D GCSE borderline.

The government ranks schools by the share of their pupils getting a C in English, maths and three other GCSEs. The more pupils in the  school that have a C grade in these subjects   the higher the school will be   in the league tables. So, unsurprisingly, teachers are incentivised to spend time and resources concentrating on getting their pupils from D to the C standard. So what? one might ask. Well it means, broadly, that the most able pupils on the one hand,  and the underachievers , on the other , don’t get the support and attention they deserve from their teachers. These pupils are being short changed by the system. And teachers are put  under  considerable pressure to bump grades up from D to C, if they have the power to do so which,  of course, they do in teacher-marked “controlled assessments” ie coursework completed under strict classroom supervision . Remember, the English GCSE can be taken in such a way that the pupil has done everything except for teacher-marked “controlled assessments” in the final months. The reliance on controlled assessment – 60% of the marks in English GCSE – placed a big emphasis on the role of schools and the teachers who were doing the marking. The teachers actually knew what marks each pupil needed to move from D to C grade.  So, given this context, it is easy  to see how much pressure  was placed on the teacher to  give pupils  those marks that  were necessary  to secure a C grade.

Most of the controlled assessment work was submitted in the summer and examiners saw evidence of over-marking. This led to exam boards raising grade boundaries, meaning some pupils got poorer grades than expected. That is not really the teachers fault, of course. If the accountability framework demands that from them, then that is what they are bound to deliver.

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, is absolutely clear that the problem is the incentives teachers face.  She agrees too that it is not their fault. They are not cheating. They are marking papers ‘optimistically’ (her word). This is what Stacey said on the BBC R4 Today programme (2 November):

“Teachers are not making up marks here. They are doing their level best to do the best for their students and they are bound, given the pressures they are under, to take the most optimistic view..There’s an amount of tolerance… some lee-way in the marking. But if enough teachers mark up to that tolerance, mark up to that limit, then overall it has a national effect,” she added.

Interestingly Ofquals report  on English  GCSEs 2012 states:

“We have found evidence that this [the use of examination thresholds at grade C] can lead to undue pressure on schools in the way they mark controlled assessments. A recurring theme in our interviews with schools was the pressure exerted by the accountability arrangements, and the extent to which it drives teachers to predict and manage grade outcomes” (para 6.3).

Maybe there is a case, as Chris Cook of the FT suggests, for a finely graded score out of 100, given the problems attached to grading?

Ofqual Report-GCSE English 2012



What is not clear is why the external moderators failed to pick up on the ‘optimistic’ marking, which is their job.



  1. Good article. “External moderators” meaning Ofqual, whose chief executive agrees that the teacher assessments were broadly correct, although on the slightly generous side rather than somewhat stingy in their marking. The other key factor in this whole story is that the game changed when Mr Gove told Ofqual that there were too many students getting high marks (!) and achieving the C grade, at which point Ofqual realised that, on the basis of the examinations already taken and marked this year, to bring down the overall passes for the year would involve significantly shifting the grade boundaries etc for the cohort taking the tests at the end of the year. A truly scandalous situation.

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