A testing time

    The headmistress of Benenden, Samantha Price, addresses the efficacy of the exam appeal process for both state and independent schools and asks whether there is an alternative solution

    Samantha Price

    Exams have been back in the news recently following a review by Ofqual, the exams regulator, into the appeals system. One of the details that emerged was that independent schools submitted twice as many as state schools. The inference was that children at fee paying schools are somehow gaining an unfair advantage.


    For the past two years we at Benenden have had to engage in a protracted dispute with our exam board over the marking of students’ GCSE English Literature Controlled Assessment – or coursework, as it is perhaps better known.

    As is standard practice, the work is marked internally and checked here by a second person – always using the exam board’s guidelines. The exam board then select a dozen papers at random to check we are interpreting the guidelines correctly and that they are happy with our marking. We hear nothing until results day and the rest of the students who sat that subject are at the mercy of that random selection.

    Last year, after looking at that sample of a dozen papers, each of our 90 English Literature Controlled Assessments was downgraded because the exam board disagreed with our marking.

    We appealed the decision, pointing out that we had followed their guidelines and we sent them a different selection of papers as evidence. Eventually, after something of a battle, they agreed with us and reinstated our original marks. As a result, 24 students – or 27 per cent of the year group – saw their overall grade for English Literature increase.

    This was a frustrating situation, and for some students it was very stressful. However, it was made worse by the fact that exactly the same thing had happened the previous year.

    I do have some sympathy with the exam boards, however, because there will always be an element of subjectivity in the marking of coursework, as there is no clear right or wrong answer, so I accept it is the most difficult type of paper for examiners to mark. The imminent reforms to GCSEs will essentially remove this particular problem because coursework will become a thing of the past. However, there is clearly a wider issue regarding inconsistencies in marking and exam boards’ interpretation of their own marking schemes.

    I am not suggesting that being an examiner is easy, far from it. It can be an arduous and thankless task.

    However, Ofqual’s review provided a real opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of the marking system. Instead, the changes it has announced make the appeals process appear to be vague. I am concerned that this will not result in young people receiving a better service.

    In my view the marking system itself requires a fundamental rethink. It is clear that the country needs more expert examiners. The people best placed to fulfil this role are practising teachers but schools would need to release them for a week or two during the summer term so that they could devote the necessary attention to this most essential of duties. Of course, not every school would have the resources to allow this, so a suitable funding arrangement would need to be put in place, but there are schools which would be in a position to lend such support, in the interests of improving the overall system.

    Benenden is currently considering how to best support staff so that they can examine. It would be difficult for us to release them completely from school at a crucial stage of the academic year but we are confident that we can relieve them of some of their duties to provide them with the time required to fulfil this role: I believe it would be worth it if it was part of a rise in the overall standard of exam marking.

    I hope other schools will make similar pledges because, after all, we are all working in education for the sake of our students. Children work extremely hard to achieve the best possible grades, and the education sector – whether you are at an independent or state school – owes it to them to accurately recognise their achievements.