GCSE exam grades not unlawful

Posted: 13th February 2013

Thousands of teenagers who fell foul of changes to the way in which GCSE English examination results are graded were treated unfairly - but examination boards and qualifications regulator, Ofqual, did not act unlawfully, the High Court has ruled. An alliance of more than 150 pupils, schools, local authorities and teaching unions failed in an unprecedented legal challenge to examination grades awarded in June 2012.

The alliance had accused the AQA and Edexcel examination boards, in conjunction with Ofqual, of unfairly pushing up the grade boundaries for the crucial examinations in what it was argued amounted to ‘illegitimate grade manipulation’ and ‘a statistical fix’. Aired in court was a ‘widespread and deeply held grievance’ in respect of the way C and D grade boundaries had been fixed and the marking of controlled assessments, a type of coursework completed in the classroom.RCJ

An estimated 10,000 pupils who sat the examinations had missed out on a C grade, the minimum normally required to progress into further education. Ofqual had appreciated that there were features of the grading process which had operated unfairly and had proposed a number of changes designed to ensure problems that had arisen would not be repeated. The examination boards had conceded, with the benefit of hindsight, that it may have been the case that students who took the examinations in January 2012 were ‘treated more generously’ than they should have been and that those who sat them in June under different grade boundaries achieved proportionately lower results.

The court acknowledged that the exam grading issue was ‘a matter of widespread and genuine concern, properly brought to court.’ However, dismissing the judicial review application, Lord Justice Elias, sitting with Mrs Justice Swift, concluded: “Having now reviewed the evidence in detail, I am satisfied that it was indeed the structure of the qualification itself which was the source of such unfairness as has been demonstrated in this case and not any unlawful action by either Ofqual or the examination boards”.

Observing that Ofqual could not ‘remedy unfairness between the January and June cohorts without creating further unfairness elsewhere’, the judge concluded: “Maintaining the currency of the qualification was a powerful and legitimate justification, in the public interest, even though that involved accepting as a necessary, albeit highly undesirable, consequence, that the June students were to some extent subject to tougher assessments than their January counterparts. If Ofqual had not brought a halt to the inconsistent standards at this stage, they would have had to have done so at some later stage unless they were prepared to forego their principal objective and debase the value of the currency of English GCSE.”