Head teachers in east London are accusing exam boards of unfairly raising GCSE grade boundaries as national results fell for the first time in 24 years.
Pass rates at A* to C fell by 0.4 per cent, but shock results in English saw a national drop of 1.5 per cent and one of 1.9 per cent in English Literature, in what more than one teacher has called the ‘English debacle’.
The effect was felt more in some areas than others.
Grades in Lewisham stalled, with 56 per cent of pupils achieving the ‘gold standard’ of 5 or more A*-C grades (including English and Maths) – level with last year, when performance jumped eight per cent from 2010.
By the same measure, Croydon also looked to be stagnating, though not all data had come in on Thursday evening. Between 61 per cent and 63 per cent had achieved the ‘gold standard’ – a slight increase of last year, as opposed to a six per cent jump between 2010 and 2011.
Hackney’s grades rose by 3.5 per cent to 60.5, while Tower Hamlets schools had not yet returned all their statistics. The national average is 63.9 per cent.
Our Lady’s Convent High School in Stamford Hill said no teachers had complained and that it had done well, while Stoke Newington School announced it had achieved its best GCSE results ever, with 62 per cent of students gaining A* to C grades including core subjects.
Results rose or stayed level in all four EastLondonLines boroughs against a background of national decline, and schools were keen to stress that many of their students had done well, with smiling faces and fulfilled ambitions across the city.
But teachers and some unlucky pupils were left wondering how expected grades at C or above had faltered at the finish line.
Annie Jammon, Stoke Newington’s principal, told EastLondonLines that even her school had been affected by grade boundaries rising significantly more than usual, taking teachers by surprise.
She said: “We’re very pleased at the results we’ve got – particularly in the national context – and particularly due to the English GCSE grade boundary issue. In fact we’d probably hoped to go up slightly more than we did do.”
Sion Humphreys, who has been a teacher in inner London for 30 years and is now policy advisor for the National Association of Head Teachers, said he had been flooded with calls teachers concerned about the raised grades for English. “They rarely ring us up – we normally have to contact them.”
Grade boundaries for English GCSEs with AQA, the most subscribed exam board for the subject, increased by an average of three points from the January exams. But some units’ boundaries went up by as much as ten.
The government had also increased the ‘floor target’ of pupils getting at least five grades above C from 35% to 40%. Schools falling below this target will be classed as failing and may be taken out of local authority control and converted into academies.
Kenny Frederick, principal at George Green school on the Isle of Dogs, said she was “horrified” at what she called “manipulation” of the controlled assessments pupils took in English.
She said: “It’s completely out of the blue. Children in this day and age are measured every time they’re moved, every time they do anything, every half term, so we can see if anybody’s slipping. We’re looking all the time at grade boundaries to know what kids have to get, so it’s a complete shock.”
Grade boundaries are adjusted every year by the major exam boards – always after the exams themselves. But schools submit random sample papers for moderation ahead of these changes, and are told whether they are marking at the right level.
According to Frederick, actual grade boundaries this year were far higher than moderators had led teachers to expect. Two pupils had received different grades in January and summer exams despite getting exactly the same mark.
The school improved its grades by six per cent as opposed to an expected ten per cent. Of 171 students sitting the exams, 19 got lower grades than expected.
She said: “It’s a bit like you’re running the hundred metres, and you think you’re at the end, and suddenly they say, no, it’s actually 150m.”
Jammon claimed her own school had been predicting that 67% of students – instead of 62% – would achieve the A*-C standard, based on grade boundary changes in line with previous years.
“I do think there’s a political element. It is tough on the students and schools and head-teachers, who will be concerned for their jobs. We’ve had some of the children who would have expected to get that C in English and they hadn’t.”
Jez Smith, who is head teacher the Jon Richardson Community School in nearby Dagenham, said his school had suffered from a drastic fall in English due to a “manufactured change”.
He said: “We have had two years of significant progress, but today’s results saw a drop in expected grades in English, of about seven to eight per cent.”
Pupils at the boundary of C and D grades are especially vulnerable. In boroughs with deprived populations, many pupils cluster around this mark, and schools focus on getting them over the boundary. Slipping from a C for a D grade would be disasterous for ambitious but troubled students, according to one Lewisham teacher who spent the day consoling upset colleagues.
Smith said: “I know of one borough school who have been trying to progress and who will now struggle to meet the requisite benchmark.”
A spokesperson for Ofqual, the exam regulator, said grade boundaries always change for each particular sitting of an exam, and that it is completely independent of the government.
The drop in results, Ofqual said, could be due to a “variety of factors”, including the 20,000 students who switched this year to a new exam, RGCSE. Many were apparently private school students and high performers, whose loss would affect the overall average.
AQA said: “All we have done is what we always do – it’s about maintaining standards. If candidates deserve to get the grades then they will get them.”
“We have procedures in place if schools are not happy and want to talk through the results, so by all means if they have concerns they can contact us, and we’ll have a team so we’ll look at those issues.”
Written by Laurence Dodds and Alan Dymock