Court rejects bid to overturn GCSE grades

exam candidate The controversy followed last summer's GCSE exams when pupils got lower than expected grades

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A legal attempt to overturn controversial GCSE grades has been rejected.

The High Court has not accepted a bid from school leaders, teachers' unions and councils to change grade boundaries in last summer's GCSE English exams.

Head teachers said they were "bitterly disappointed" with the court's ruling that results might have been unfair but they were not unlawful.

Ofqual chief Glenys Stacey said: "It's our job to secure standards."

The ruling from the High Court blocked a bid to change thousands of results from exams taken last summer.

Judges said there had been "widespread and genuine concern", but it blamed the modular structure of the exam for creating the problems.

'Right grades'

Lord Justice Elias said it was "the structure of the qualification itself which is the source of such unfairness as has been demonstrated in this case, and not any unlawful action" by the Ofqual exam regulator or exam boards.


Even for Ofqual and the exam boards, who have been vindicated by the court ruling, there will be little triumphalism.

This battle over last summer's GCSE English results has been a rancorous, divisive episode, revealing deep levels of distrust among head teachers for those running the exam system.

In the end, the court did not find a conspiracy theory. Instead it found that the biggest problem was the modular structure of the exam.

This rolling process of accumulating credits had boxed the exam regulators into a tight corner, meaning they had to balance different levels of difficulty in January and June against the requirement to maintain standards.

"Ofqual was engaged in an exercise of damage limitation. Whichever way it chose to resolve the problem, there was going to be an element of unfairness," concluded the judges.

Unfair, but not unlawful.

GCSEs are in the process of being reformed. But for the "bitterly disappointed" heads and their pupils, this has been a tough and protracted examination.

The ruling says that changing the summer exam grade boundaries to the lower level used for January exams would have created an "unrealistically high proportion of students obtaining a C grade" - and as such Ofqual was correct to reject this proposal.

The modular structure of the exam, with grades awarded at each stage, was identified as the underlying problem.

Regulators were faced with allowing the "unfairness" of a tougher grading for pupils taking the exams in the summer in order to protect GCSE standards. The alternative would have been to retrospectively lower the results of pupils taking exams in January.

"Once that became clear, Ofqual was engaged in an exercise of damage limitation. Whichever way it chose to resolve the problem, there was going to be an element of unfairness," says the ruling.

But it concludes that Ofqual and the exam boards had not "erred in law".

Ofqual chief Glenys Stacey said the regulator's decisions over exam grades had been "the right thing and the fairest thing, for the right reasons".

She said that if the court had backed the legal challenge it would have meant "many students would have received grades that they did not deserve".


Joan McVittie, a north London head teacher who had been part of the bid to overturn results, said: "We are bitterly disappointed. This case was taken on behalf of young people who were affected last summer.

"This has affected their life chances considerably."

A spokeswoman for the AQA exam board said they were "acutely aware of the distress caused to candidates who were disappointed by their GCSE English results last summer.

"Clearly there are lessons to be learned all round from what happened."

Start Quote

I am satisfied that it was indeed the structure of the qualification itself which is the source of such unfairness... and not any unlawful action”

End Quote Lord Justice Elias Ruling on GCSE dispute

The legal challenge had been launched after protests from head teachers that thousands of pupils had received lower grades than expected.

The court heard claims that grade boundaries had been manipulated upwards in an attempt to avoid too many pupils being awarded higher GCSE grades.

Lawyers representing the alliance of pupils, heads and councils argued for the June exams to be regraded in line with exams taken in January when the boundaries were lower.

But Edexcel and AQA said they had acted properly and Ofqual argued it had acted in a "clear, principled and transparent" way.

The challenge centred on more than 10,000 pupils who missed out on a C grade in GCSE English, which is a crucial benchmark used for entry into further education, vocational training and employment.

Up to 50,000 pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could have received higher grades if the judges had upheld the legal challenge.

GCSE changes

The case against the regulator Ofqual and exam boards AQA and Edexcel had been brought by a total of 167 individual pupils, supported by 150 schools and 42 councils, plus six professional bodies, including teachers' unions.

In an acrimonious dispute, which has run since the exam results were issued in August, head teachers repeatedly challenged Ofqual's credibility.

The controversy also saw a growing divide between the education systems in England and Wales - with the Welsh government ordering a regrade.

Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, which owns the Edexcel exam board, said there was "much to be learned from the events of this summer", but said he was pleased that the courts had "found that our awarding processes were rigorous and fair".

Education Secretary Michael Gove said: "Labour politicians should apologise to pupils, parents and teachers for their decision to introduce modules into GCSEs. Today's judgement made it clear that the modular structure created the problem with GCSEs."

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: "The government must ensure these problems don't happen again. Now that Michael Gove's English Baccalaureate reforms have fallen apart it is vital that he restores the credibility of exams for the future."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    It's about time pupils were given the grade they deserve rather than the grade their school wants them to have. As a university lecturer I see so many students that are not capable of their study - they struggle with the course and either drop out, or fail, wasting 3-4 years of earning potential.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Get rid of grades. Grade boundaries are too subjective and lead to grade inflation. Two students can be separated by just 1 mark, but the difference can be a whole grade. Marks form a continuous distribution, not a discrete one that grading uses. Just publish the percentile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    As the judge said, the problem is the modular system. It makes marking fairly, harder and passing easier. I've taken both modular courses and ones where I had a final exam. The first I learnt and forgot and passed easily. The other I had to ensure I had a proper grounding in the subject and was a lot tougher and far fewer people passed it. I wonder which employers are looking for?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The real scandal here is that pupils are being treated differently dependent on where they live. Either England should have its own assembly or certain things, such as education, should be a national issue and apply across the board. Our education system is too important to our childrens future to be a plaything for politicians or a political tool to be used so arbitrarily.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    As an employer, I'm delighted at this news. Anything that stops 'grade inflation' is a good thing.

    In future years I look forward to interviewing candidates who merit the string of As they present as proof of their basic educational grounding.


Comments 5 of 6


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