Grade fiasco won’t go away

Janet Downs's picture
If the Government thinks that Ofqual’s report upholding this year’s GCSE English grades will dampen the anger then it should read TES for 31 August 2012.

I’m a long-time TES reader and don’t remember the paper ever seething with such rage. The editorial* said that “shiftng a grade boundary a couple of kilometres at the eleventh hour does not in any sane universe constitute an improvement in the quality of learning” and suggest that the whole debacle is a lesson in “the art of cynical manipulation.”

Geof Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, wrote that pupils had been “sacrificed for an ideology”.

The letters are excoriating. A Dorset deputy head says “the obsession with comparative outcomes and the political benefits of grade inflation/deflation have destroyed a world-leading system” while Andy Bowles, former education lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan, asks why anyone is surprised that this government interfered “directly or indirectly in Ofqual”. He says that the existence of both Ofqual and Ofsted relies on their finding “evidence” which does not contradict the government’s ideology. A Hampshire study skills tutor calls for Gove to go, saying he is a “liar and a cheat”. Strong words – and it’s significant that TES printed them on its letter page.

Ian Sharp, an educational consultant, writes that the “hard-line marking” damaged the very students which the government says it wants to help. This accusation is echoed by, among others, the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), which runs 29 academies, and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

And now it appears that Ofqual foresaw a possible problem with modular exams three years ago but failed to implement a solution.

This fiasco goes beyond the debate about normative assessment (something I favoured if GCSE C were to remain a sign of above-average ability) or criterion referencing or even how exam boards set their grade boundaries. Confidence has been severely undermined. It’s time for GCSEs to go. At least that would bring the UK into line with most of the rest of the developed world (see FAQs above for information about exam systems in other countries).

*The editorial doesn’t seem to be available on-line. If you find the link please post it in comments. Letters can be viewed by visiting TES online, finding the 31 August 2012 edition and clicking on letters.

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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 01/09/2012 - 10:59

It is not surprising that the tone of the TES coverage was as it was. It was all written before the publication of the Ofqual report, and during a time when scores of mendaciou and politically motivated people were circulating various conspiracy theories designed to implicate Michael Gove (either directly or indirectly).

Now we know none of that was true.

Indeed, TES's own reporting has established that the protocols that led to this year's problems were established more than 3 years ago(i.e. under the last Labour government).

Ofqual has also established that the decisions about grade boundaries were taken by the teachers who serve as chief examiners for each paper and that they did so according to Ofqual's own best-practice guidelines. (These people do not report to Michael Gove and he has no idea who these individuals are, so all the talk about trying to curry favour or responding to rhetoric is total nonsense.)

The hypocrisy of LSN is a wonder to behold. Through all the time when Gove has been pointing up the shortcomings of GCSEs (particular the modular, CA dominated ones that appear to be at the root of this fiasco) and calling for reform of the exam system, people here have been telling us how wonderful GCSEs are. Now it's 'time for {them} to go.' Well, it's a start, I suppose.

agov's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 08:03

"mendaciou and politically motivated people"

You mean like Gove asset stripping public assets and handing them over to Tory party doners.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 08:38

Thanks, agov. "Mendaciou (sic) and politically motivated people" could also include those politicians and commentators who repeat misinformation about English state education. I give ten examples here:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 09:37

I take it you are referring to Downhills, where the assets (land, buildings etc.) will remain in public ownership and where the management of the school is being handed over to a charity.

The founder of that charity is indeed a generous donor to the Conservative Party. He is also a generous donor to education causes - having given tens of millions to education charities.

To misrepresent the situation as one in which Lord Harris makes a personal gain out of rescuing this school - as you and Janet do - is precisely the kind of mendacity I mean.

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 09:50

I thought it more about ego than money with Harris.

agov's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 07:40

You're so funny Ricky. It's the way you tell 'em

The Cayman Islands are just so famous for their charitable works:

Nearly half a billon smackers of taxpayers money squandered in paying legal fees to allow Gove to asset strip £1 billion of public assets to the benefit of these 'charities'.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 10:09

Why ego rather than altruism?

He also supports research into bowel and prostate cancer, gives money to Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge and Oriel, Oxford..... and helps fund Peckham community centre. Not much ego-payback there, I'd have thought.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 18:36

Because if it had been altruism he would have stayed away from a school Gove was clearly using as a political football.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 11:54


Problem is - it just isn't true. You really shouldn't rely on Guardian readers recycled by Michael Rosen for your facts.

The norm is:

For converter academies that were community schools: the land continues to be owned by the LA but is leased on a 125 year lease to the academy trust.

For converter academies that were VA faith schools: freehold of land and buildings continue to be owned by the diocese/religious body and are leased to the academy trust.

The situation is slightly more complicated for former foundation schools - with or without foundation trusts.

What isn't happening is what you say is.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 12:07

Since you know it's not true can you link to the actual costs please Ricky?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 12:13

Costs, Rebecca?

We're not talking about costs; we're talking about asset transfers. Do keep up.

But if you really want something to read - try this:

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 12:31

No Ricky, we're talking about the costs of the asset transfers which Michael Rosen reports as being nearly half a billion on legal fees associated with the transfers.

What are the actual costs incurred at the level of each school Ricky - on legal fees and all other costs associated with sticking the word academy after a school name?
And what are the costs at DFE level?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 12:52

But while I'm at it Ricky - talking about the Asset transfers, where are all the provisions in that document for leases to be revoked if the academies fail to provide high quality services?

agov's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 07:49

They can sell the land they got for nothing at the cost of half a billion on fees to the taxpayer. And send the loot to the Cayman Islands.

You really shouldn't rely on propaganda from the DfE.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 07:57

They do seem to be able to do a lot at the discretion of Michael Gove....
Why the Caymen islands agov?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 09:33

This freudian slip is flying around Facebook this morning agov.

I spent some time discussing Israel on US discussion forums. Watching how key documents with very disturbing evidence were disappearing in real time was very shocking.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 01/09/2012 - 11:56

Anyone who thinks that the Ofqual report will defuse the situation is mistaken. Below are news reports for today, 1 September 2012:

BBC: ‘BBC political correspondent Iain Watson says the report from Ofqual appears to have exacerbated rather than quelled the row.’

‘Labour said Ofqual had not addressed the situation of students in the same year, who received the same marks, being awarded different grades.’

The Telegraph: ‘The exams watchdog has provoked a furious backlash after insisting that controversial GCSE English test papers would not be re-graded.’

‘The National Association of Head Teachers branded the report a “fudge”.’

The Guardian: ‘A review of GCSE English grades has also been ordered in Northern Ireland. Headteachers there also claim exam boards raised grade boundaries in English halfway through the year. John O'Dowd, education minister at Stormont, said: "I am increasingly concerned at feedback from schools here in recent days. It is vitally important that we can all have confidence in the fairness and transparency of the arrangements for marking and grading examinations."’

The Mail: ‘Heads and teachers denounced the report as a ‘whitewash’ and renewed threats of legal action against exam boards.’

The Independent: ‘Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “This is a very weak and disappointing report and we reiterate the fact that there needs to be an independent inquiry. It still remains the fact that it is simply scandalous to change the grade boundaries halfway through the school year.”’

ITV news: ‘The row over this year's GCSE English grade boundaries shows no signs of abating after Ofqual said the qualification would not be regraded.’

Wales online: ‘Rebecca Williams, policy officer for Welsh teachers’ union UCAC, remains unconvinced [by Ofqual’s report] and said: “It’s hard not to read Ofqual’s report as a piece of political manoeuvring. “It gets Michael Gove off the hook very nicely, but totally fails to address the fact that the inconsistency in grading between January and June is a serious systemic problem which has damaged the prospects of hundreds of thousands of students.’

‘Dr Philip Dixon, director of teaching union ATL Cymru, said the Ofqual report did not make a convincing case for its conclusions. “Given the concession over students re-sitting exams, it is doubtful that even its authors have full confidence in it,” he said.’

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 01/09/2012 - 12:28

In March I argued that if standards of GCSEs were to be seen as consistent over time (ie since they were first implemented in the late 80s) then this would entail a return to normative assessment (C would always be a sign of above-average ability). This would have entailed a recalibration of GCSEs and if it were to be done then it would need to be implemented slowly, carefully and with consultation and due publicity.

At the time of writing this call for a reassessment of GCSE was already out-of-date. Confidence in GCSEs has collapsed because of political interference (over many years), grade inflation/deflation, the use of equivalent exams and the widespread opinion that only “5 good GCSEs” (ie those graded C and above) are worth having. In 1987, when GCSEs were introduced, the grading system showed what pupils knew, understood and could do. Even the bottom grade G showed that a pupil was at foundation level and had completed a course of secondary education. That humane attitude has gone. Today, pupils who gain D or below are labeled as failures - “lazy or stupid” according to one comment on the TES forum.

Mr Gove is right when he calls for a radical overhaul of exams. But it should not be one person’s theory leaked to a tabloid just before the summer holidays and accompanied by orders to exam boards to start developing this new system in the autumn. It should be careful and considered, something on the lines of Tomlinson and implemented over time. Above all it should look at the international evidence (see FAQs above) and not fly in its face.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 01/09/2012 - 13:01

The watchdog also criticised schools’ internal marking of so-called “controlled assessments” – coursework-style tasks – insisting they had been “over-reliant” on the January grade boundaries as a standards guide. Examiners were “at pains to explain to teachers that grade boundaries could change”, said Ofqual, but many schools failed to heed the warnings.

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, the exam board at the centre of most complaints, said there was “evidence of significant teacher over-marking”.

The lack of competence and the question mark over the integrity of the teachers involved is arguably also a scandal that requires investigation.

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 09:31

"The lack of competence and the question mark over the integrity of the teachers involved is arguably also a scandal that requires investigation."

You have a system that is easily gamed and rewards people who game it at the expense of those who don't. Why do we need an investigation to find out what is blatantly obvious?

In some ways Gove seems to have a grasp about what is going and has moved to close some of the more obvious loop holes - for example terminal assessment is a step in the right direction. However many of the people Gove describes as 'heroes' have benefited from the very system Gove is trying to change, some like Michelle Rhee are advocates of the system.

stevew's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 18:30

A couple of points here:

1) OFQUAL have told a, I'll be polite here, half truth. True AQA did say that grade boundaries could change from the pilot sitting (June 2011) but they said it, at official training events, in the following context:

"The exact grade boundaies can change from session to session so we can't tell you what mark is necessary for a C grade. What we can say is that 'band 3' on the markscheme is aligned exactly with the grade C criteria so if someone is at the top of band 3 then that'll be a grade C."

They moved the goalposts (for some students not all which is the biggest scandal) so that work had to be in band 4 to be awared a grade C.

2) AQA have reported that there was evidence of overly generous marking from some schools. Where it is outside of tolerance the marks are moved down. I do have a concern though that AQA have said that the boundaries were moved up because of the overly generous marking within some schools. Yet AQA have praised, in writing, the quality and accuracy of our marking - we've marked with absolute perfect accuracy and our students have suffered as a consequence - what message does that send to schools?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 09:50

You choose the euphemism 'gaming', but I assume cheating is what you really mean (at least when it comes to controlled assessment etc.).

How refreshing that a teacher at last admits that other teachers cheat. When I suggested this on another thread, it was denied.

Gove has indeed moved to improve things, reducing the number of equivalents (to howls of protest from LSN) and by moving towards linear exams.

What else would you suggest he does to prevent 'gaming' or whatever you want to call it?

stevew's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 19:04

2) I meant OFQUAL have reported evidence obviously!

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 11:01

I think there is a small distinction to be made between 'gaming' and 'cheating'. For example I'd consider showing the students the question paper before a controlled assessment is cheating while setting practice questions that are similar to the controlled assessment is 'gaming'.

I also consider the systematic things that a few of our 'most improved' schools do to be 'gaming' rather than 'cheating'. They include;

1. Focusing resources on C/D borderline students at the expense of other students.

2. Entering students at every possible examination point to increase their chances of getting a C grade.

3. Entering students for vocational qualifications to increase the % of students gaining 5A*-C or equivalent.

4. Allowing target students to take less subjects to maximise their chances of getting 5A*-C grades at GCSE including English and Maths.

5. Seeking to manipulate their intake in some way to exclude children who are unlikely to get 5A*-C grades at GCSE.

Gove has effectively dealt with point 2 and to a larger extent point 3 - good on him. He can deal with the problems surrounding controlled assessment easily by scrapping it - good on him if he does and I'd actually vote for him if he'd stop messing with my terms and conditions.

I would suggest go along way to eliminating the rest of the gaming by scrapping the current fixation with outcomes and using them to bash members of the profession who may be doing a good job in tough circumstances but haven't achieved what is, as far as I can see, a figure plucked out of the air.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 11:24

Leonard - the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development would agree with much of your criticism of GCSEs. Last year the OECD warned about the excessive emphasis on grades in the English state system and said it could result in grade inflation, "gaming", teaching-to-the-test and neglecting other important skills which couldn't easily be assessed. The OECD concerns are discussed in more depth here:

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 01/09/2012 - 14:57

“The proportion of students achieving a grade C on the foundation tier paper dropped from 37 per cent in January 2012 to 10 per cent in June 2012. If the June results were right, that might suggest that AQA’s award in January 2012 was too generous. However, the evidence that AQA had at the time – the data on expected awards - suggested that they might have been too severe, and the grade boundary that was set was higher than the data would have suggested. It is now clear that they had limited evidence from a relatively small entry, but our view is that the judgements made at the time were sound.” (Page 16 Ofqual report)

Teachers used the January awards as a marking guide and to give an expected grade on the foundation tier. Then AQA says belatedly that January’s awards were not “too severe” but were actually “too generous”.

Ofqual excuses AQA by saying it had “limited evidence”. So did the teachers – they had “limited evidence”. All they had to go on were the January results which have swung from being “too severe” to “too generous”. Nevertheless, Ofqual blames teachers for “over-marking”. This in turn is being used to attack the integrity of teachers and accuse them of incompetence.

So teachers are to blame for not guessing correctly where the pendulum would end up.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sat, 01/09/2012 - 16:11

There were different written papers set in January and June for the AQA foundation tier. It is wholly appropriate that the grade boundaries for these papers were different. (page 21)

Those arguing that the exam boards/Ofqual should have just swallowed the fact than January's grade boundaries were too generous should attend to this section (pp 16-17):

...had the grade boundaries for January carried through to June, there would have been very significant grade inflation at qualification level: there would have been a big increase in the proportion of candidates getting grades A*–C at English GCSE which was not justified by the evidence. As the regulator, we could not have defended such an increase. It would have put us in breach of our statutory standards objective.

...i.e. Ofqual is arguing that it was required to act as it did by its statutory remit. Those who have been so noisily blaming Michael Gove should now apologize. That statutory remit was set by the last Labour government.

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 11:16

Ricky (no reply button)

"Why ego rather than altruism?
He also supports research into bowel and prostate cancer, gives money to Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge and Oriel, Oxford….. and helps fund Peckham community centre. Not much ego-payback there, I’d have thought."

I don't see why one can be considered altruistic in one instance and compelled by ego in another. To be fair I'm only going on what other people have said about Harris but he has put his name to the academy chain which could be a sign that he seeks some form of personal gratification from the project and therefore is not truly altruistic towards it.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 02/09/2012 - 12:56

Leonard - I'm going off-thread here but in reply to your comment above it appears that not all the money pledged to sponsored academies arrived. The National Audit Office 2010 (see FAQs above) found that a significant proportion of sponsors hadn't given the promised money. Earlier in 2009, the Guardian reported that "Lord Harris, chairman and chief executive of Carpetright plc, sponsors a chain of nine academies in south London. Seven, for whom sponsorship is listed in the written answer, have so far received £3.7m of the £8.5m pledged."

He was, however, not the worst offender.

NB Sponsors no longer have to pledge money

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 16:00

This is interesting:

If anyone wants to check out the authenticity of the posters you can join the forum and chat to them by personal message. They may well not want to give their real life identities (although they may as they're rare posters and can start new identities) but it's possible to check out of people are real or not just by chatting to them. I can't of course but they look like authentic posts at first glance.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 16:05

Rebecca - reply to above re costs (no reply button). In Oct 2011 the cost of academy conversion since the election was £18,642,779 and rising:

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 16:28

At £40k per school the cost of converting 24,000 schools would be £0.96bn or £960,000,000

And that's completely apart from the costs of rebranding, new uniforms, consultations and change and the energy spent on this which could have been spent on education.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 17:03

Rebecca - and that doesn't include the amount that LAs have to pay in legal and administrative fees in order to "free" schools from their control.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 20:59

At £40k per school the cost of converting 24,000 schools would be £0.96bn

Lucky there are only 3260-odd secondary schools in England then.

And that many manage to keep their costs under 25k.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 17:42

Any idea how much that is Janet?

Why are these legal fees so high?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 21:44

I thought primaries were being pushed to become academies too?
That's what it says above 'Party Policies' isn't it?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 17:54

Rebecca - I've no idea of the exact figures. North East Lincolnshire was claiming that it cost them £30,000 in legal and administrative fees to convert one academy.

However, a Freedom of Information request to Lincolnshire County Council (LCC) revealed that LCC had paid a lot less than North Lincolnshire was claiming. However, LCC could give no figure for the administration time while North Lincolnshire had factored office time into their figure.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 21:04

.... Besides, most schools who covert get a six-figure boost in their first year, and then in every subsequent year, as a result of no longer being robbed blind by the LA.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 21:58

Is it just the popular schools in good areas which are becoming academies Ricky?
I thought the schools in rough areas which were net beneficiaries in the local redistribution of cash were becoming academies too?

"being robbed blind by the LA." Please don't spout that awful propaganda for his policies that Gove makes up Ricky. This is the real world we're talking about, not Gove's fantasy word of lots of baddies he has to save humanity from.

agov's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 07:56

"being robbed blind by the LA"

That's another lie made up by Gove.

LAs are required to publish the truth.

They don't get to hide what they're up to by using their wife's email account.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 09:34

Back in the 90s LEAs used to siphon off 27% of the schools budget. That was too much even for a Labour government and Blair's administration tried to bring in a rule requiring LAs to delegate at least 80% of funding, but only 12 out of 150 authorities monitored actually complied.

Things did get better under relentless political pressure such that the LA slice was reduced to between 8-12%.

Still too much.

agov's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 09:56

How much got siphoned off in the 80s?

It's entirely up to central government to choose whether funds provided to LAs are ring fenced or not. Some LAs spent more on education than the notional amount, some spent more.

If central government doesn't wish LAs to exercise local discretion over exactly how best to spend funds it has always been able to change it.

How much are Academy chains siphoning off to pay their 'executives'(, not to mention sending off to the Cayman Islands).

agov's picture
Wed, 05/09/2012 - 08:52

Again with the cherry picking Ricky.

You don't like to talk about LAs that put more into their education budgets than the notional sum but you're perfectly okay with extracting selective facts you like the look of.

What's the overall % to which academy chains help themselves and which does not get passed to the schools that have been handed over to them?

How many academy chains have taken up Gove's advice to subcontract work to an openly profit making outfit? What is the total value of this wheeze? How many such outfits provide money to the same people running academy chains, or their friends and relatives?

Why are you strangely quiet about the nightmare of outsourcing in New York, the place on which Gove bases his latest bright idea after he gave up on Sweden and Finland?

agov's picture
Thu, 06/09/2012 - 09:05

So, Ricky, that's a 'don't know' then.

Another thing you probably don't know is how much greater a % would be siphoned off in 'management' fees by these 'charities' (not least the ones connected to aggressive tax-avoidance havens like the Caymans) if Gove succeeds in handing over every possible school to their 'care'.

They remind me of those bus companies that flood an area with new bus routes and dirt cheap fares. Right up until the day the pre-existing service companies go bankrupt. Then all the routes are withdrawn except for the most profitable and the fares go through the roof.

agov's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 09:57

oops, one too many mores

Here's a 'less'

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 05/09/2012 - 10:28


I'm not cherry picking.

You made specific allegations against ARK - that they had taken public assets into private hands; that they had siphoned off money provided by the taxpayer and stashed it in the Caymans; that they were paying silly-money salaries to their executives, with the implication that they were using charitable status as a means to covertly enrich themselves.

Since none of this is remotely true, I doubt whether your other assertions are either.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 11:11


No money has been sent off to the Cayman Islands. Nor is Stanley Fink the boss of ARK (he was chairman in 2009-10 but was replaced by Ian Wace in October 2010).

All money paid to ARK Schools by the government has remained in ARK Schools within the UK.

Money may well have come the other way - i.e. from the Cayman Islands, as various hedge-fund managers such as Arpad Busson, Stanley Fink and Ian Wace have been very generous to ARK Schools.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 05/09/2012 - 10:36

"You made specific allegations against ARK"


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 11:16

agov is saying that the money is going via the salaries of some of the highly paid executives.

Are you saying that the DFE is tracking what these people are doing with their salaries Ricky? How is this being done?


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