We need to talk about exam re-marks – and quickly, says editor Laura McInerney

It’s the first week of term and teachers of exam classes will be poring over papers to decide if any should be sent for re-marking.

At A-level the decision is usually made early: if a student misses their university grades, papers are dispatched rapidly so any changes can be made (fingers crossed).

GCSE re-marks are a more subtle beast. Except for the relatively small number of children who find themselves needing a certain number of B or C grades to enter sixth form, the rest don’t really need their scores to move. As long as the child received a “pass” grade (which varies by subject now), they shouldn’t face too many issues in future for having achieved a C instead of a B, for example.

Schools have an incentive to request re-marks

Schools have an incentive to request re-marks, however. One benefit of the new Progress 8 measure used by politicians and inspectors to judge schools is that every exam sat by every pupil matters. In the past, only pupils on the C-D borderline were the focus of improvement efforts. Now, under Progress 8, a pupil moving from an E to a D makes a difference, as does a child moving from an A to an A*.

Where teachers once sniffed out the pupils who just missed a C grade, particularly in English and maths, and sent those papers off for re-marking, now they must sniff out every near miss. And then they must ask whether it’s worth the financial risk of asking for a second look.

On results day, the team at Schools Week spoke to around 10 headteachers. No-one was willing to go on record, but every last one said they would be looking at a more aggressive re-marking strategy this year.

“It means too much to our Progress 8 score. How can we not?”

“It means too much to our Progress 8 score. How can we not?” was the refrain.

The problem is that once a school starts a trend for sending off for re-marks, it then becomes even more important that other schools do too. Progress 8 is a relative measure; it is worked out based on how pupils in one school do in comparison to every other child in their cohort, so if re-marks push the scores of a cohort in one school up, others will see their progress score go down.

Ofqual, the exams regulator, got ahead of this problem a touch and made exam re-marking less likely to yield a grade change than in previous years. Instead of a full re-mark, papers are simply looked over to see if there is a genuine mistake in the way they have been marked, rather than having a more experienced person re-marking the paper and their score replacing the old one.

But this hasn’t satisfied headteacher demands for re-marks, in so far as I am hearing. We will see, when official statistics are published later in the term, whether or not re-marks have increased as much as feared, but it does seem to be the case that most people are punting in extras this year.

Re-marks can be expensive (schools pay if grades are not changed) and they can also lead to a drop in a pupil’s grade, but many schools don’t make this clear to pupils, and will put in for re-marks without advising them of it. In future, we could see a child knocked back from university due to a low grade they only received because their school resubmitted a paper in a bid to improve its own performance grading. It’s an awful – but extremely plausible – scenario.

Headteachers facing the difficult question of re-marks are not to be blamed for sensibly deciding to send off many exam papers. Uncertainty about the accuracy of marking is multiplied by the pressures of performance measures, making it an easy choice. You take a chance on a change, but if everyone does the same, it will end up as an expensive way to make almost no difference at all to outcomes. But, if you don’t re-mark, you could very well get left behind.

It’s a classic social trap. If everyone runs for the door to get out of the fire, bad things will happen. If you don’t run for the door, you’ll get burned. There’s no easy answer, but it seems better for everyone to be aware this is happening than to keep it hidden.