Minister promises to get tough on exam board mistakes – again

Ofqual could take 'regulatory action', but previous ministerial criticisms and watchdog fines do not appear to be preventing problems

Ofqual could take 'regulatory action', but previous ministerial criticisms and watchdog fines do not appear to be preventing problems

28 Jul 2022, 13:56

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The education secretary James Cleverly has condemned a series of mistakes in exam papers and advance information, dubbing them “unacceptable”.

The cabinet minister said in a letter published today: “While there were only a small number of substantive errors, including those related to advance information, any errors are unacceptable and risk causing unnecessary stress for students, who have worked so hard to prepare for their exams”.

It appears to be the first time ministers have been forced to acknowledge such problems with this summer’s exams, the first in three years after Covid disruption.

AQA had apologised in June after a GCSE physics paper included a question on a topic that had been specifically ruled out in advance information. Edexcel did the same over a GCSE geography mistake which saw Gabon labelled as the Democratic Republic of Congo on a map of Africa.

In a published response to education select committee chairman Robert Halfon, who had demanded fines for exam boards, Cleverly said Ofqual could take “regulatory action”.

He highlighted the regulator’s recent pledge to closely monitor the awarding process to ensure students “are not disadvantaged”. Ofqual will provide a further update after results are issued, he added.

Awarding organisations themselves are “communicating directly” with schools or via their websites to “explain their plans to mitigate any impact of these errors on students”.

He said Ofqual investigations “start straight away” – suggesting probes may have already begun.

But Ofqual does not normally consider regulatory action until after results are issued so exam boards can focus on that. It does not comment on such actions until full investigations and decisions have been made, Cleverly added.

But Cleverly said while there were some “genuine errors”, some concerns raised about advance information “resulted from a misunderstanding of its purpose”, without giving further details.

Fines and firm words fail to prevent exam problems

Ministers have spoken out in previous years over exam boards errors, and fines have been threatened and issued, but they do not appear to have solved the problem.

Former PM Tony Blair

Two decades ago, Labour prime minister Tony Blair similarly condemned “unacceptable” performance by Edexcel over a series of errors, which prompted a regulator audit. Edexcel’s AS-level in religious studies in 2001 had contained questions form its practice papers.

Ten years later, Conservative schools minister Nick Gibb condemned “unacceptably poor practice” after 11 exam errors, affecting 140,000 pupils. He said new powers to fine exam boards would give them a “powerful incentive” to improve standards and be a “clear deterrent”.

But OCR issued three apologies in two weeks over mistakes in 2017. A year later it was fined £175,000 after a mix up over Romeo and Juliet characters.

AQA included an “unanswerable” question in 2017 biology papers. Two years later it was fined £350,000 – the largest penalty ever Ofqual fine – for “serious breaches” of re-marking rules.

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  1. Examination Boards used to have layers of checking papers at all stages from first draft through to final proof. I was part of this for A Level geography. My understanding is that these checkers are no longer employed, partly as an economy, but also as a security measure.