Many people will say changes to the GCSE and A-level re-marking system are unfair, but are they correct? Editor Laura McInerney isn’t convinced.

Ofqual’s decision to change the GCSE and A-level exam appeals process is unlikely to be an immediate hit. In future, instead of exam papers being re-marked they will be “reviewed”. Senior examiners will read back over marked papers and check no fundamental error was made in the marking. The examiner can’t think “I would give this essay 7 marks, so I’m bumping it to 7”. Instead they have to decide “was it totally incorrect to give the essay 5 marks?”  and, if it wasn’t, the original mark stands.

No one wants to hear that exam appeals will be less successful. No one wants young people left without grades they deserve. But Ofqual are doing this for a good reason. They tested how examiners react when told they are re-marking papers, and found they are more generous than when first marking them as part of the whole cohort. Re-marking seems to put examiners into a different mindset. Appeals therefore have a generosity baked into them which pupils who don’t appeal never get.

This generosity is unfair. It’s particularly unfair when it costs around £50 for a mark appeal. Schools should not be able to buy more sympathetic marking. What Ofqual found is that the review system – similar to ones used in legal cases – gets around this inbuilt generosity and, they concluded, it is therefore more fair.

Hurray for that.


A bigger problem

But the changes mask the bigger problem: schools with more money can spend more on appeals. And even if re-marks are less generous, they’re still a better shot at getting marks increased.

Figures today show that private schools are substantially more likely to be put pupils in for a mark appeal than state schools. Partly because state schools don’t have the cash and partly because they have more pupils so administration is cumbersome.

Hence, access to the appeals process is fundamentally unfair. If your school says it doesn’t have the cash to put you in for a re-mark, there is nothing you can do about it. Some schools have started offering to appeal if parents pay, but such charges are a legal grey area, and many schools are not set up to take such payments.

Ofqual has therefore said it will even the playing field by allowing any pupil to appeal their mark directly to exam boards. The school can no longer block them.

But this has massive repercussions. If exam boards allow it (they are saying they won’t) then pupils with families who can afford appeal fees are likely to put in lots of requests, whereas pupils without cash won’t – no matter how terrible the marking on their paper.

Hence, if going ahead, a policy designed to even the playing field could actually exacerbate the inequalities.

A second thing Ofqual has said is that if exam boards won’t do this then the boards will nevertheless have to ensure there is an appeals process through which the pupil can challenge the schools’ refusal to appeal their marks. An appeal about not having an appeal, if you will. Which is very confusing.


So, are the changes fair or not?

Educators with an anti-exam bent will use these changes as another reason to bash exam regulation and argue it would be better if we scrapped the whole thing.

I’m sympathetic to the view our exam system is currently a mess. But I question if it is our exam marking which is the actual problem.

And I also want to issue a warning.

In the US multiple choice exams are everywhere. Objective, rigid, efficiently marked by machines, they are the economic way to batch-process assessment and to guard against rogue parents suing because their child’s incorrect (human) mark meant they didn’t get into university. (In the US, this genuinely happens).

Exam marking in England is not perfect. Clearly, there are issues around examiner pay, the amount of turnaround time, the amount of training given (my own experience of online standardisation was rubbish) and flux in the assessment system also isn’t helping.

But to argue that moving to reviews rather than re-marks is unfair is incorrect and missing the broader point.

Re-marks are unfair because there is no standardised access to them. And if we move towards a world where, if you pay individually, you an access them more – we will be going backwards.  Reviews rather than re-marks are actually one of the few things that might actually be a help.