Why do GCSEs exist

Even on their own terms the reforms don’t address a second key question: much of the lost confidence in GCSE came about, not as a result of it becoming easier, but as a consequence of poor quality and inconsistent marking and grading – leading to a loss of confidence in the ability of exams to treat candidates fairly from board to board, subject to subject, and year to year.

Little has been said or done to increase confidence in quality. It is not clear what exam boards intend to do differently when it comes to the recruitment and remuneration of markers, or the quality control of exam administration.

Recently, the head of OCR called for heads to do more to encourage already hard-pressed teachers to work as examiners. But this is only part of the solution.

Exam questions are rarely simply right or wrong. Examiners use their professional judgement to award a mark appropriate to the accuracy, depth or sophistication of the candidate’s response.

There will always be a subjective element, and this produces an ‘error’, not in the sense of marks being wrongly awarded or added up, but in the sense that a given answer might attract a particular mark from most examiners, but might attract a slightly higher (or lower) mark by a few others.

With more grades, grade boundaries (say between the top and the bottom of the 8 at GCSE) will be only a few marks apart, and if the margin of error in marking is actually wider than that it is quite possible that candidates with the same set of answers could get a 9, an 8 or a 7. All without any actual administrative mistake. And that’s even before considering possible variations in marking and grading from subject to subject, board to board and year to year.

It’s time for Ofqual and the exam boards to convince us that they have a plan to restore confidence in the administration, and not just in the content and structure of the exams. In the meantime, schools must have the right to shop around for alternatives, like IGCSE.

Trying to undermine other qualifications, by excluding them from performance tables, and even by spinning stories about them being “easier”, does nothing to reassure anyone about the quality or consistency of untried, untested new GCSEs. The Government loves markets. So why not let the educational ‘market’ decide?

Dr Kevin Stannard is Director of Innovation and Learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST)