English GCSE grading legal challenge begins

GCSE examination GCSE results fell for the first time in 24 years this year

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Local authorities, teaching unions and schools have begun a legal challenge against Ofqual's refusal to re-grade GCSE English papers in England.

They have written formally to exams regulator Ofqual, and exam boards AQA and Edexcel, threatening to seek a judicial review.

Thousands of pupils scored lower-than-expected results when grade boundaries were raised mid-way through the year.

Ofqual held an inquiry into the problems but has stood by the grading.

However, teachers and heads have complained that pupils who sat the papers in January got higher grades than those who sat them in June.

The pre-action letter, signed by six teaching associations or unions, 113 schools and 36 councils from across England is the first step of the alliance's legal challenge over the issue and sets out the case.

It says the administration of the results contravenes "the cardinal principle of good administration that all persons who are in a similar position should be treated similarly".

It adds that the decision is "conspicuously unfair and/or an abuse of power, breaching (without justification) the legitimate expectations" of students who sat the examinations.

It is being sent to the boards and the regulator and gives them seven days to respond.


  • Issues with GCSE English grading emerged as results reached schools in August
  • Heads suggested the exams had been marked over-harshly after Ofqual told exam boards to keep an eye on grade inflation
  • Exam boards told reporters grade boundaries had changed significantly mid-way through the year
  • Alterations were as much as 10 marks
  • Heads complained pupils who sat GCSE English in the winter might have got a lower mark if they had sat it in the summer
  • Their unions called for an investigation and some mentioned legal action
  • Ofqual agreed to hold an inquiry
  • It ruled that the earlier January grade boundaries were too lenient and the June grades were correct

It adds: "It is inconceivable that two cohorts of students enrolled for the same course in the same academic year, who have undertaken the same work and invested the same effort, and who will be competing in future for the same opportunities, should be subjected to such radically different standards of assessment and award."

And it argues that schools and students relied on the published January grade boundaries in making their preparations for the June exam.

Because no specific, focused warnings of significant grade boundary changes were made, schools and students were denied the opportunity to change their preparation for the key examination.

Ofqual held a short inquiry into the problems but found the exam boards had acted properly and stood by the results for all those who sat the exam, despite the discrepancies.

Publishing the report at the end of August, Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey said: "The issue is not the June, but the January boundaries. Again, examiners used their best judgement in setting these boundaries, but they had less data and information to work with."

English GCSE is one of the core subjects, and most students require a C grade to move on to the next stage of their education.

'Bureaucratic bungling'

The move comes after Welsh exam board, WJEC, re-graded thousands of English GCSE papers. Some 2,300 pupils received better results.

Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "This legal challenge is essentially about fairness. Young people only have one chance at a good education and it is absolutely wrong that 16-year-olds this year are ending up paying for mistakes made by adults who should know better. This is about putting right the errors that were made by Ofqual and the awarding bodies in this year's exams."

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: "The statistics are opaque but the moral issue is simple: a group of young people have been made to pay a devastating price for the mistakes of others. This must be rectified swiftly."

Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, said: "Our young people are paying for the bureaucratic bungling of others.

"Students performing at exactly the same level in January and June have been given different results - some have passed through the gateway into their next level of education or training, while others have had the door slammed shut in their faces."

Shadow Education Secretary said: "Labour supports teachers, parents and pupils who are demanding exams are marked fairly. But they shouldn't have to resort to the courts.

"Michael Gove looks increasingly isolated and out of touch. He has sacrificed thousands of young people's futures who just want the chance to continue studying."

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