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Ofqual - Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation

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Questions and Answers, GCSE English 2012

What's going on with GCSE English this year?

Concerns have been raised over the awarding of GCSE English qualifications this year. In particular questions are being asked about how grade boundaries were set in a very small number of units across the year. Overall, GCSE English pass rates at A* to C grade fell by 1.5 per cent, but some schools appear to have experienced much more significant reductions in achievement as compared with their own teacher predictions. In line with the normal process, grade boundaries do move across units. This can impact upon the overall award of the full qualification – this is a feature of qualifications that are broken down into units. However, it's the extent of these moves and the impact it had that we are now looking at.

You said you were confident that grades awarded were right. Have you got it wrong?

We remain confident that this year's GCSE results – across all subjects - are comparable with last year's and reflect the right standards. The overall pass rate at grades A* to C fell 0.4 per cent, which properly reflects differences in the group of students and the qualifications. But there are clearly concerns about the grade boundaries within units of the English GCSEs. We want to understand what these concerns are and we will look immediately, thoroughly, and quickly into these issues.

So what are you going to do?

On Saturday 25th August Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey announced that Ofqual will look closely at the detail of grade C boundary setting for some of the English units. She said: "We recognise the continuing concerns among students, parents and teachers about this year's GCSE English results. We will look closely at how the results were arrived at. We will do this quickly, but thoroughly, so that we ensure confidence is maintained in our examinations system."

We want to:

  • Confirm and explain what has happened to GCSE English results this summer
  • Take swift action if problems are found
  • Maintain confidence in the exam system
  • Identify broader questions for further work by Ofqual and others.

How are you going to do this?

As well as speaking with representative groups (teacher and head teacher organisations and others), we will meet exam boards and look closely at the available data on awarding and grade boundary setting for particular units. We will be continuing with this data analysis over the next few days.

We have contacted the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and they are assisting us with details of the precise concerns of their members. We have arranged to meet with representatives of NAHT and ASCL to discuss the concerns that they are collating for us now.

We will be meeting with a selection of school leaders in Leeds and in Bradford because of particular concerns expressed about results in those cities.

We are also analysing our helpline calls and emails received, to see what patterns are emerging.

When will you report on your work?

We expect to produce an initial report of what we find by Friday of this week. By then we will have a good understanding of the concerns and a provisional view about what, if anything, needs to happen.

Isn't this an embarrassing u-turn for you?

No. It is our job to make sure that grades are right. We are confident that our approach to standards at qualification level enables standards to be secured. However, where problems are identified it is our role to make sure the facts are established and understood. If something has gone wrong it is our job to put it right. It is important that everyone can have confidence in the way the grades have been awarded. If we find anything of concern, we will take action as appropriate.

We are an independent regulator. It is our job to make sure that the grades awarded are right – this is why Parliament set us up and it is the job we are doing.

Should there be a full and independent inquiry?

We will do our work thoroughly, independently, and effectively and we want to get on with it quickly. Whether or not there is any other inquiry is not a matter for us to decide. We expect though to be doing further work after we have produced our initial report on this issue.

How many students are affected?

The NAHT, and others, have offered estimates. But we don't know – definitively - whether any students are affected. It is always the case that some students are disappointed with their results. The question for us is whether students did not get the results they deserved. We are gathering evidence to help us understand that. We will not be able to confirm any numbers until we have had a closer look at the evidence.

Are the exam boards going to re-grade all of the GCSE English exams?

We will not speculate on any possible outcomes from our look at the concerns being raised about some grade boundaries. We will take action as appropriate. At this stage, our focus is on understanding the concerns people are bringing to us.

There has been talk about changes to GCSE English this year. What were they?

New GCSE English, GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature syllabuses were introduced for first teaching in September 2010. They are syllabuses made up of units that may each be available for assessment up to four times during the two-year course. For English Language assessment weightings are 60 per cent controlled assessment and 40 per cent external assessment. For English Literature they are 25 per cent controlled assessment and 75 per cent external assessment. Controlled assessments - coursework carried out under controlled conditions by students in their school or college - were introduced in 2009.

Do you think that the grade boundaries for these "controlled assessments" and when students submitted their work for assessment are at the heart of the problem?

That is one of the things we are going to look at. We know that any new syllabus faces challenges when it is introduced. The new GCSE English is a modular qualification where students take exams in different units spread across a couple of years. In these circumstances the exam boards have to consider all the evidence available for each exam series and make decisions to make sure that the right qualification standards are achieved.

Grade boundaries can change from exam series to exam series. Decisions on grade boundaries are made after assessments have been taken – based upon all of the available evidence. Exam boards consider this, and make decisions accordingly, to make sure that the final qualification grades are comparable to last year.

We are receiving reports of significant movement in grades between those predicted by teachers and those achieved. In addition we know that there was an increase in the numbers of students taking other qualifications such as iGCSEs, and there were changes in entry patterns, which all mean that the cohorts were not comparable from year to year.

Haven't you been leant on by the Government to bring grades down as part of a political agenda?

No. We act and regulate independently. We were established as an independent regulator by Parliament. Our approach – called comparable outcomes – was introduced in 2009 for AS levels and was applied to new A levels in 2010 and new GCSEs from 2011. Details of our approach have been published on our website since 2010. Our approach to comparable outcomes is a vital part of our Corporate Plan – which was consulted on with a wide range of stakeholders.

What are "comparable outcomes"?

We want an exam system which commands the confidence of the public and properly prepares young people for their futures. One of our main jobs is to make sure that grades are right, that what is required for each grade stays steady and that any differences year-on-year, or between exam boards, are explained and justified. We don't want to see year-on-year increases without good reason as this has a real impact on public confidence. We call this approach "comparable outcomes".


See our previous statements on this year's GCSEs.

We want to make sure that public debate about our report on this year’s GCSE English awarding is well informed. Read our discussion of the myths about Ofqual’s report into GCSE English 2012.