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GCSE English (Marking)

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 18 September 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the Minister on her new role, to which I am sure she will bring great energy and commitment.

Unlike the current Ministers, I have no experience of work in the media or policy think-tanks. I simply bring experience of how things work or do not work in the real world outside Westminster, where real families toil, real kids go to school and real professionals work jolly hard to achieve the best they possibly can for our young people. I have a lifetime’s experience of teaching English. The easiest exam to prepare kids for was O-level English literature, and the exam that gave the most perverse, unfair outcomes for kids was O-level English language. The Government’s theoreticians may think a return to O-level will be a good thing, but I very much doubt it.

Criterion-referenced GCSE English has gone through many changes over the years, but today’s world has been transformed from the world of 1988, when the first cohort of students took the then new school leavers’ exam introduced by the Conservative Government. In all its manifestations, however, I can say without hesitation that GCSE has been far more demanding for students than its predecessor. It is a much tougher qualification to prepare students for and has a much tougher assessment regime for them to meet, but it has been fairer—until now, when a Government obsessed with ideas rather than realities are presiding over a monumental injustice.

At its heart, the GCSE fiasco this summer is not about Ministers and MPs, or exam boards and technical stuff. It is about something a lot simpler and a lot more important: it is about whether the assessments given to young people this summer were fair. The head of Ofqual, in her outrageously flippant remark that some candidates “got lucky”, seems to recognise that she failed in her duty to ensure that the outcomes in one year were fair to all candidates. As the editor of The Times Educational Supplement wrote this week:

“Obsessed with maintaining standards between years, Ofqual has failed to maintain them within a single one. It has completely undermined confidence in the exams it is supposed to protect.”

The Ofqual report “GCSE English Awards” lets the cat out of the bag. A technical document, designed to whitewash, it is obsessed with controlling statistics, not standards. It makes it clear that young people’s achievements at 16 are capped by their achievement at 11. The whole review hinges on

“the predictions made by the exam boards of results for each GCSE…based on prior attainment data”—

key stage 2 results—so that achievement at 16 is being capped by achievement at 11. An exasperated National Union of Teachers collectively sighs:

“Such an approach begs the question—does secondary education just not matter?”

Excellent analyses by the National Association for the Teaching of English and the National Association of Head Teachers demonstrate that Ofqual and the Government are, in essence, returning to norm referencing by the back door. Although the Secretary of State, in a very brief answer to my question yesterday, said that norm referencing was off the table, it is very much on the table, and I think that there needs to be some honesty about that. It is hardly surprising that the whitewash document also includes an admission, on page 19, that

“this year’s English results have come as a shock to some schools, and some of the school-level outcomes are hard to explain”.

You bet they are, if the aim is to cover up a monumental cock-up.

What is clear to me from talking with local head teachers in the Scunthorpe area whose students have been affected is that something significant and exceptional has gone wrong this year. They are solid, decent professionals whose judgments I trust, and they are universally telling me that if we look back across their schools’ predictions for the past five years in GCSE English and GCSE maths—the two key progression qualifications—their predictions for students attaining C and above have been consistently within a 4% tolerance of the final outcomes, except for this year, when maths remains within that tolerance, but English is more than 10% out. These are professionals who know what they are doing, and they tell me that the same students predicted a C this year would have achieved a C last year.

I will be brief, because I had the chance to speak in the main Chamber. What my hon. Friend’s professionals are telling him in Scunthorpe is precisely what professionals are telling me in Southampton. I was, with the current shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the two architects of Ofqual. We took the decision to establish an independent regulator. Does he agree that we have to face the fact that the guarantee of independence, which we delivered, was no guarantee of competence? The worst thing we can do now is to overlook the fact that Ofqual has got this wrong and to say that there is nothing that we can do to right the injustice that has been done to thousands of students this summer.

My right hon. Friend makes a salient and pertinent point. What is important is that young people in Scunthorpe, in Southampton and indeed throughout the land are treated fairly. The regulators recognise their own incompetence when one of them comes out with comments such as some students “got lucky”, but that is not good enough, is it? The incompetence that they recognise should not stand in the way of young people being treated fairly.

It is worth noting that, nationally, 26.7% of students doing the foundation paper in June 2011 got a C grade, while only 10.2% got a C grade in June 2012. Those statistics corroborate my local head teachers’ view that students taking the exam in June 2012 were disadvantaged compared with similar students who took the exam in June 2011.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the conditions on which Ofqual was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) and the now shadow Chancellor was that its duty was to maintain confidence in the exam system? How does a comment from the chief executive of Ofqual that some kids “got lucky” maintain such confidence?

It is clear that there is no confidence at all in Ofqual among education professionals, among people working in industry and business who I met the other day—they clearly do not have confidence in Ofqual—and, most importantly, among parents and the students themselves. Ofqual has failed that crucial test.

If the exam marking was so fundamentally flawed and the exam was too easy or whatever, why was the barrier between A and A* not changed? Why were those marks kept the same? Why was the C grade changed?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I shall explain, there were impacts on other grade levels. The focus has primarily been on the borderline between C and D because that is such a crucial progression lever for young people, but there have been effects on other grades as well.

Why does this matter? It matters because GCSE English is a progression qualification: it makes a difference to individuals’ lives, to what they do next and to where they go next. It matters because we have a duty to young people to ensure that the assessments at 16 are fair. They have clearly not been fair this year. Worse than that, the Secretary of State and the regulator obfuscate, appearing more interested in covering up and protecting themselves than in ensuring that young people are treated fairly. Worse still, as my hon. Friend says, the focus has been on the unfairness to students missing out on a C and having to adjust their careers accordingly, but as a former principal of a sixth-form college I know that those students getting a B instead of an A will be disadvantaged next year when they apply for higher education. Their choices will be limited.

On 23 August, the Secretary of State for Education received news of the fall in success rates for students in their GCSEs with a certain smug satisfaction: failure for young people was success for him. It was all about rigour, standards and other buzzwords, not about achievement, progression and fair outcomes. Gradually, though, a darker story began to emerge. As schools analysed the results, they identified a significant change in how GCSE English had been marked in June compared with January. Something had gone very wrong, with grade boundaries being significantly adjusted in year to ensure that fewer students met their predicted grades.

In one school in my constituency, because of the boundary changes, the percentage of students achieving five A* to C grades fell from 80% based on January marking to 62% in June. As a consequence, the percentage of students achieving the important five A* to C grades including mathematics and English fell from 62% to 52%. At another local school, the changes meant that 25 pupils did not achieve the C grade they were predicted to achieve, and the school’s English results fell from 53% achieving C last year to 40% this year. At another school, almost 25% of the cohort taking exams were negatively affected by the boundary changes. These are drastic and startling figures, and I assure you, Mr Hollobone, that in all my years as an English teacher and then a sixth-form college principal, I have never seen anything quite like it.

One local head teacher described the impact on students and the school as catastrophic. Students who had achieved a C in English in January were re-timetabled for extra maths; they achieved their maths C in June, but because the school did not draw down their English marks until June, the C they had banked in January became a D in June. How on earth can that be fair?

Schools are very good at self-evaluation, but this episode has undermined their confidence in what they are doing. Their confidence in teaching GCSE English has also been undermined as further confused messages such as those we heard yesterday come out. There is also a lack of confidence about how they are preparing this year’s cohort for next year’s exam, so the impact of this year’s cock-up is being felt not only by this year’s students, but by next year’s students. That is why it is so important that the Government act now to put things right for the youngsters and schools affected.

The Association of School and College Leaders believes that one quarter of all secondary schools in England and Wales have been damaged. At first, it was thought that tens of thousands of pupils were affected, but the situation is far worse. We now know that 133,906 pupils have been affected on the boundary between grades C and D alone, before all the other boundaries are taken into account. If that injustice is not reversed it is likely to have a long-term impact on the social mobility of the students affected. Research from ASCL shows that those affected are disproportionately from areas of high deprivation, ethnic minority groups and poorer families. Parents have written to me to explain that their children have been devastated by the news that they cannot pursue the courses and jobs they had set their minds on. I have an example here of a student who has moved on to further education, whose mother writes:

“My daughter is one of the many thousands involved in this injustice and we've now heard that the AQA resit for English Language is 7th November. This fiasco needs to be sorted NOW before it’s too late! As it is she is having to do extra work to ‘revise’ for the resit on top of her college assignments. It’s simply not fair.”

Similarly, teachers have told me about the anxiety that the situation has caused them, with one describing Ofqual’s actions as immoral and inhuman.

Last week, The Times Educational Supplement published letters between Ofqual and Edexcel showing that the regulator had, at the 11th hour, pressured the exam board into revising the grade boundaries against its professional judgment. Ofqual told the exam board to

“review the English award at grade C in order to produce outcomes that are much closer to the predictions and so in line with national standards”.

We must remember that the predictions are based on key stage 2 assessments at age 11. In its response, Edexcel protested that

“we have put considerable effort into producing what we consider to be a fair award”,

adding that

“our award is a fair award and we do not believe a further revision of our grade boundaries is justified”.

Those are the professionals, who have looked at the work, not just carried out a statistical exercise. Ofqual then sent a final letter, warning Edexcel that

“their expectation”


“that Edexcel will produce outcomes...that are within the 1% of the overall prediction”.

Edexcel then capitulated.

Last week, the chief regulator and the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee on Education to answer the growing avalanche of questions. It was a master class in obfuscation. After their appearance, the Chair of the Select Committee spoke for everyone when he said:

“There are many important questions in this to which we do not have satisfactory answers”,

adding that the explanations given were “inadequate”. The Secretary of State has hovered between bullish and sheepish in his response to the gathering storm. He blusters and hides behind an unaccountable quango, which in turn hides behind a cloak of statistical confusion.

Adding further to the unfolding chaos, the regulator in Wales—the Welsh Government—has taken clear action by ordering the Welsh board to re-award grades to Welsh candidates. That means that students in Wales will be treated fairly, but my constituents who did the Welsh board English GCSE—believe it or not, Mr Hollobone, the Welsh exam board is popular in Scunthorpe—will not. How on earth can that be proper? How can it be just?

There is a further contradiction and a further worry. The Secretary of State seems to be saying that GCSE results must not go up, but that in every school more than 40% of pupils must get five A* to C grades. Those who have signed up to a conspiracy version of history see that as an agenda not only to fail students, but to fail schools. A consortium of schools, academies, further education colleges, local authorities and professional associations is taking legal action this week. I wish them success, but it should not have come to that—wasting public money, time and energy on legal costs and process. Ofqual and the Secretary of State should be big enough to hold up their hands, admit that they got it wrong and take action to put it right. That is the moral code that we teach our young people, and our leaders should also follow it.

Who is accountable for the cock-up? An unelected quango that is doing the Secretary of State’s bidding. Surely it would be better if he were directly accountable to the young people of this country and ordered an immediate independent inquiry into what has happened or, better still, followed the Welsh Government’s example and ordered Ofqual to instruct the exam boards to re-award their grades, so that all students taking the exam this year are treated fairly and in line with their contemporaries the year before.

Being a modern MP, I asked my Twitter and Facebook followers what questions they wanted to be answered. Overwhelmingly, they were variations on the following. Can the Minister explain to youngsters and their families how pupils can get a lower mark in January and do better than someone who gets a higher mark in June? That is what happened this year. While the Minister is considering that, I will ask three further questions. Will she urge the Secretary of State to stand up and be counted, to apologise for this year’s cock-up and to take action to ensure that this year’s students are treated equally and fairly, based on the professional judgment of the exam boards—the people who have seen the children’s work? Will she say whether she is happy that achievement at 16 is apparently being capped by achievement at 11, in a move back to norm referencing? Finally, will she ask Ofsted not to fail schools that can demonstrate that they missed the threshold owing to the impact of GCSE English marking this summer?

I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for securing today’s debate. I recognise that he has a lot of expertise in the sector. He taught English at Greatfield high school, and is a former principal of a further education college, so I respect the knowledge that he has brought to today’s debate.

I want to restate what the Secretary of State has already made clear. I have great sympathy for all those students who did not receive the grades they were expecting in this summer’s GCSE English results. There is a process whereby hon. Members can register their concerns with Ofqual, which is rightly dealing with queries. If schools or students are concerned, I suggest that they raise those concerns with Ofqual as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to set out what action the Government are taking, and what action I believe they should take. It will come as no surprise to him that, as the Secretary of State made clear at the Select Committee earlier this week, it would be totally wrong for the Government to intervene in marking or grading decisions. That is Ofqual’s responsibility, and as other hon. Members have said, Ofqual was set up by the previous Secretary of State to oversee and maintain standards and qualifications. Grade boundaries and maintaining standards is a matter for Ofqual, which is directly accountable to Parliament. It is important that where there are independent regulators, they should conduct investigations and answer queries—in this case, that process is still ongoing—without undue political interference.

Ofqual published its initial report into the concerns about GCSE English, finding that the June grade boundaries were properly set and that candidates’ work was properly graded. It has also said that the January grade boundaries were set generously. The hon. Gentleman has referred to Glenys Stacey’s comments on that matter.

First, does the Secretary of State have a role in ensuring the competence of the regulator? Secondly, Ofqual has not looked at any work; it is a mere statistical sample of 75%. It is not even a technical analysis of 100%, according to the report, which is signally flawed. Does the Minister accept that point?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, our exam system is undergoing reform. I shall comment later on the modular system and the impact that that had on grading decisions.

Ofqual is looking at the details of individual students and why they got the expected results, while others did not. That is why I am encouraging hon. Members to send concerns to Ofqual, which will produce its final report in October. It is the right body to investigate the matter, rather than the Department for Education, because otherwise we end up in a system where politicians interfere with the grading review. The hon. Gentleman alluded to Wales, and that is a problem with the approach being taken there.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned problems with the current system, presenting a rosy description of GCSEs in the years since their introduction. Although he spoke about O-levels, I am not able to remember sitting such exams, because I took GCSEs. Therefore, I sadly do not have his wealth of knowledge about different qualifications going back through history. The specific problem with English GCSE was the modular examination system, which we are changing. A lot of convoluted technical processes were created that made it more difficult to moderate and mark the exams. The Government and the Secretary of State have been clear about wanting to move away from a modular system to one in which students study subjects in depth, and where what students have learnt can be assessed at the end of the course. We think that modular exams and re-sitting exams get in the way of sound subject knowledge and sound subject teaching.

We believe that modular examinations were a factor in what happened with the English GCSE exams, but that is a matter for Ofqual to investigate. As I have said, the report is expected at the end of October. It will be up to Parliament to examine the findings, as Ofqual is ultimately accountable to Parliament, which returns to the question that the hon. Gentleman asked about what the Secretary of State’s role should be.

We are restoring the end-of-course exams for students starting GCSE courses this September. Yesterday, the Secretary of State announced the new English baccalaureate certificates that will be introduced in the core subjects. They will be linear and results will be given at the end of the course. I understand that that does not answer the specific question of what happened with students this summer, but again, that is being investigated by Ofqual. The proper role of politicians is to consider how the system can be reformed to work properly, rather than intervening in specific decisions that it is right for the regulator to make.

On the hon. Gentleman’s rosy perception of the past few years, there is widespread, bipartisan agreement that the level of grade inflation cannot be justified. He also had warm words for the examining bodies, even though they have been criticised for the role that they played in that inflation. I do not think, therefore, that they can be entirely part of the solution—in other words, we need to consider different approaches to GCSE exams.

Since 2000, England’s performance in international reading, mathematics and science tests have flatlined. Andreas Schleicher from the OECD has described the UK as stagnating over that period. The specific comments about the English results cannot hide the fact that under the previous Government we did not see the increase in standards that was seen in comparable countries. In 2000, the UK was ranked 12 places ahead of Germany in mathematics, but by 2009, it was 12 places behind. In 2000, the UK was 16 places above Germany in science, but it is now three places below. In reading, it was 14 places above Germany, but it is now five below. We cannot ignore international evidence showing that what was being reported as happening as a result of our exam system was not accurate, compared with fast-improving jurisdictions across the world.

I say gently to the Minister that those points are for another debate. We should focus on the hundreds of thousands of young people who have been negatively affected by something that, as the general secretary of ASCL said, has gone seriously and significantly wrong. Such people do not say things like that glibly. Something is wrong here and it is in an area that the Government, if they had intestinal fortitude, would do something about.

The reason it has gone wrong is because of the system we inherited, which was based on modular examinations. While we saw grade inflation in the UK, we were being overtaken by other countries.

I urge the Minister to consider this point: the students do not care about the wider debate on examination standards. Something has gone wrong in the assessment of the English language examination this year. It has nothing to do with the debate about wider standards or how things are run, and it is frankly insulting—I must say that to the Minister, who is new in the job—to talk about other issues when students are wondering what will happen to them.

It is relevant, because the modular English exam was introduced by and the system was set up under the previous Government. The former Secretary of State was clear when he established Ofqual that it was an independent regulator of standards. It is not right, therefore, for Ministers or the Secretary of State to interfere with the marking process. Ofqual must conduct that investigation and the proper process is for schools and individuals, with the encouragement of MPs who feel that the treatment has not been fair in their constituencies, to apply directly to Ofqual. I have made that point clear, but there is no doubt that the long-term problems in our system have created incentives for schools and exam boards to behave in particular ways, and those issues need to be sorted out. That is the point behind the introduction of the English baccalaureate certificates. The race to the bottom between exam boards needs to end, so that we have a system that accurately reflects standards. At the moment, it does not.

I am extremely sympathetic to students who did not get the results that they expected. However, the proper course of action is through Ofqual, which is conducting the investigation, and the proper role of politicians is to reform the exam system so that we deal with issues such as modularisation, which caused these problems.

We now move to the next debate. I would be obliged if the Parliamentary Private Secretary would remain in his seat so that we can carry on with the debate in the Minister’s absence.