The State of Public Examinations

There has been a great deal of coverage in the press this summer about the interference that there appears to have been in this summer’s GCSE English results.  I strongly believe though that the problems with the British examination system go much deeper than this.

Every summer as we receive our examination results we wait with nervousness to see which subject has been hit by rogue marking.  Almost every school suffers in one subject or another on a regular basis.  Students can be taught in the same way, by the same teachers and it can be demonstrated quite clearly that they are of a similar standard to the previous cohort and yet the results can differ quite widely.  Some subjects, perhaps particularly on the Arts side, suffer a yo-yo affect with results rising and then declining for no apparent reason.  Others who have for many years produced outstanding results are hit with a lower set of grades in a particular year.  There is no predicting which ones can be hit.

So what causes these problems?  There is no doubt that the proliferation of exams has meant that the pool of experienced markers has been spread ever more thinly.  We can no longer rely on scripts being marked by teachers who are experienced in the subjects they are marking.  Whilst exam boards continue to make big profits they do not pay markers well and thus it is inevitable that many teachers choose not to become involved.  As a school we encourage staff to get involved but there is no guarantee nationally that those examining the scripts have experience of teaching the relevant syllabus. Indeed if you look at the questions asked by exam boards when taking up references on markers you can easily understand why problems occur – very few questions are asked and the reference is just a tick box exercise.   A further consequence of the lack of experienced markers is that exam boards have had to develop mark schemes which are incredibly formulaic and serve to stifle creativity.  Often when we ask for scripts to be returned we find some brilliant work unrewarded as it does not carefully match the formulaic mark scheme;  anyone with a true understanding of the subject would see that brilliant work should be rewarded with a high grade.

If you find a subject with poor marking then the problems are only just starting.  Of course, you can ask for a remark.  The fact that these are expensive I am sure deters many schools from pursuing the appeals;  it is no surprise that proportionately more appeals come from schools in the independent sector.  The trouble with the remarking process is that you are not able to engage with the exam board.  It makes no difference if you point out to them that you feel that a particular year’s results are out of kilter with all the previous results in that subject.  They will not let those people on your own staff who mark exams for them show clearly why the marks are wrong.  The papers are looked at again and whilst some changes are made injustices often remain.

At that stage you have to enter into an appeals system which is unbelievable.  You are not allowed to appeal on the grounds that work has been marked badly; all you can do is to try to find a procedural point on which to pursue your appeal.  Why is this?  Why can there not be a proper debate with schools over scripts so that true professional dialogue is opened up? At worst this would improve practice in schools and lead to schools better understanding the examining process, at best it would enable schools to engage with the examiners to show why a particular script deserves a higher mark.

There is much debate over the need to halt grade inflation.  There is talk of the need to re-introduce O Levels.  However, whatever the exam system, we need exams which are marked by people who really understand the subject, we need exam boards to allow schools to point out the discrepancies from year to year which make no sense and we need an appeals process which does ensure that every pupil is treated fairly.  No pupil should miss out on the grade they deserve; no Head of Department should have to face the stress of the current appeals process.  New exams and tougher standards are important steps but these will not work unless the basic foundations of the examination system are improved.