GCSE Assessment

– in the House of Commons at 10:19 pm on 4th June 1991.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page , South West Hertfordshire 10:21 pm, 4th June 1991

The matter before the House tonight need not delay us for too long because it is one of simple justice.

Throughout society and our organisations we have the motto that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. Whatever the case, there is an opportunity of appeal. If a person does not like his conviction or sentence in court, he can appeal. If a person puts in a planning application and it is turned down, he can appeal. A person who is made redundant and feels that his dismissal has been unfair can go to an industrial tribunal. A person who has a social security assessment with which he disagrees can appeal. Even someone trying to enter the country can, on the rejection of a visa, appeal. Yet, in the simple case of somebody who takes a GCSE and feels that he does not have the grade that he could or should have achieved, the appeal procedure is, to say the least, ropey. The only way that such a person can appeal is if the school says so. To look at it another way, the teacher knows best. Therefore, only through the school can an appeal procedure be implemented.

We have a problem which concerns me. The amount of course work in GCSE is escalating. It accounts for an ever greater proportion of the mark. The school now acts as both judge and jury. How many schools will roll over and say, "Gosh—we got this grade wrong. We made a mistake. We will review our decision."? Very few. They will say instead, "We are right and the pupil is wrong. There is nothing that we can do. You must accept the status quo."

Today, many college and job opportunities ride on the GCSE grades that a student achieves, yet the opportunity to have a grade reassessed is denied. In the past, some marks have relied 100 per cent. on course work and I dare say that in some cases the enthusiasm and intelligence of the parents have contributed to how well the child has done. We should put in place an appeals procedure whereby a pupil or parent can have a grade reassessed if it does not seem to reflect the child's abilities. I am not suggesting that that should be done for free. An economical charge should be made. The silver thread that runs through every other aspect of our democratic life is the opportunity to evaluate whether the system has looked after us and judged fairly. Such a system should also operate in our schools.

I will support my general case with a specific example. Some months ago, a mother came to my constituency surgery to express concern that her daughter, Michelle Wakeman, had been wrongly graded in two GCSE exams—English oral and art. Michelle's case was slightly unusual in that she could not be called a team player in respect of her school activities. She had had a lot of time off because of illness and other problems. I understand that in her last year she was absent from school for between 80 and 100 days—an immense length of time. What adds piquancy to Michelle's case is that she has an IQ of 178. I understand that certain Oxford colleges and others are more than willing to consider offering her a place. Therefore, one is not dealing with someone who is struggling on the margin.

A further dimension was added to Michelle's case when the school told Mrs. Wakeman that her daughter would not be entered for the exams in French or Greek civilisation because it was questionable whether she was up to the required standard. When Mrs. Wakeman argued against that decision, she was told by the school, "We don't want to waste taxpayers' money, but if you want to pay for your daughter to take the exams, you can." So Mrs. Wakeman paid and Michelle achieved an A pass in French and a C pass in Greek civilisation. However, she achieved only a grade D pass in art and a grade 4 pass in English oral, both of which involved in-house course work.

I subsequently made representations to the local education authority and to my hon. Friend who informed me that no powers existed to deal with that.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem of subjectivity in the assessment of course work is particularly acute when the subject cannot easily be considered in terms of right and wrong, and the work cannot be marked accordingly? That applies to, for instance, economics and sociology. Teachers may have their views and may be inclined to discriminate against a pupil whose view is materially different. That makes it all the more important to introduce a built-in mechanism for appeal, so that the subjectivity of the marking system can be tested to the full.

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page , South West Hertfordshire

My hon. Friend has underlined my point most ably. The subject involved here is art, and not many things in life are more subjective than that.

I have pursued the matter diligently over the past few months. A report from the school stated: If Michelle's English had been re-marked the work of all girls with the same grade would also have had to be re-marked as there was no final examination, just course work. There seemed no justification for this as we were pleased with our results and … the work of all pupils was submitted to an external moderation panel. When I wrote to the county council, I encountered not only a similar phraseology, but the following information: The school therefore had to consider the possibility that the re-assessment of Michelle's course work might be lower than the grade awarded which would in all likelihood involve a shift in grade boundaries and a down grading of other girls. What are people playing at? Those were the responses to an innocent request for the reassessment of a girl's examination results. It is not fair on the girl. Obviously, there has been friction between her and the school. When she takes independent exams that she is supposedly not up to, she does reasonably well, gaining an A and a C, but when subjective work is assessed internally, she manages only a grade 4. As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, a grade 4 in GCSE oral English is low. I shall not say that it is on the moronic level, because that would be unfair, but it does not denote lucidity, and one would not expect it to be given to a girl who had managed to achieve a grade A in French and who is also taking Greek.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

It is on the Lambeth level.

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page , South West Hertfordshire

Hansard may or may not wish to record that remark.

The principle is unassailable. Course work is becoming too much a factor of GCSE, and assessments are subjective. It is, therefore, morally right for us to introduce a reassessment programme or policy, so that justice is not only done, but seen to be done—and we can check that it has been done.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Education and Science) 10:23 pm, 4th June 1991

It is one of the signatures of parliamentary democracy that any hon. Member should be able to bring to the House not just a constituency matter but an individual case that involves a local family, and individual constituents with whom he is familiar and on whose behalf he has wrestled with a Government Department.

It is a unique advantage that, in such a debate, an hon. Member should take the opportunity to press the Department concerned not just to look again at an individual case, but to weigh and evaluate the general lessons involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) is, therefore, to be congratulated not merely by me, as convention dictates, but by the whole House.

I will begin by briefly examining GCSE as a whole. Like my hon. Friend, I suspect, I wish to emphasise that GCSE is still a new examination. It introduced a unified system of examining everyone at the end of compulsory schooling, and did away with the need to specialise early—to choose between 0-Level or CSE two years before taking the examination. My hon. Friend will recall that back in 1986 some teachers asked us to postpone the introduction of the exam and said that they were not ready for it. It is to the credit of Lord Joseph and his then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, that they pressed ahead.

As I have visited schools, as an initial sceptic about the new exam, I have been left in no doubt about the commitment of teachers to it. The most recent HMI findings show that the energy and commitment of teachers in continuing to make GCSE a success, for the benefit of their pupils and students, remain undiminished. We already have evidence that GCSE results are improving year by year. In 1990, as in 1989 and 1988, the proportion achieving grades A to C improved. More importantly, last year we saw the A-level results of the first cohort to enter through GCSE. More entered for A-level, and more passed it.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

How does my hon. Friend know whether those grades reflect higher standards or a fall in the standards of exam marking?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Education and Science)

I was just coming to that. I was about to say that it is no discredit to GCSE—and it detracts in no way from my case that since 1986 GCSE has been generally successfully introduced—to warn the House against judging on any single first year's achievement. My hon. Friend will agree that it remains to be established how adequate this qualification is to those who want to pursue a more academic path. In that area, I find the evidence somewhat less compelling.

First, there is more and more anecdotal evidence from university departments to show that the small remaining minority from former British colonies who have continued with 0-levels reach higher standards than their United Kingdom counterparts. Secondly, and more interestingly, every school that I have visited since becoming schools Minister tells me that for the more gifted pupils—those tackling more serious subjects such as the tougher sciences and the harder languages—a grade A at GCSE is no pointer and certainly no adequate preparation for study at A-level. Thirdly—this lies at the heart of the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West presented today—unlike any previous qualification, GCSE can be obtained by a disproportionate amount of course work.

It is significant that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, in his reply to the School Examinations and Assessment Council, has already limited the amount of course work that can count towards the final grades for A-levels. I, too, find it extraordinary that that same council now proposes a maximum of 70 per cent. course work to count towards such an important qualification. I seriously doubt whether such a high proportion of unexamined work validates the rigour that we want for the more gifted pupils.

SEAC is exactly the same body that worked so hard on the seven-year-old tests—the same group of shadowy education "experts" who, in one of the most incomprehensible and illiterate documents ever submitted to a Secretary of State, suggested the dilution of A-level standards in an attempt to remedy what they perceived to be the problem of GCSE.

If the challenge is to preserve the academic rigour of qualifications at 16 years, the answer surely does not lie in further dilution of our standards at GCSE. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West will therefore share my relief that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, in last month's White Paper, firmly rejected the advice of SEAC on A-levels and the principles that it suggested should govern. Instead, he has sent back to the council the principles that he believes should govern A-level standards.

The challenge lies with the need to police much more rigorously the standards of the GCSE, to subject the examination, where we can, to external competition, and to continue to analyse the results. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West will welcome the fact that by 1994 the grades will have been metamorphosed into levels. Level 10 should be much higher than existing grade A when the GCSE is fitted into the national curriculum.

Above all, the challenge for the Department and its advisers is to continue to take notice of precisely the sort of complaint that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West has brought before the House. First, the SEAC proposal that up to 70 per cent. of course work should count towards a supposedly academic qualification can no longer be taken seriously. Secondly, in assessment and moderation—what we used to know as marking—we should continue to be wary of any attempt to make the GCSE less rigorous than its predecessors.

As my hon. Friends will agree, an examination is effective only if those who mark do so accurately, rigorously and consistently. The marking of examination scripts in the GCSE, as in other public examinations, depends on rigorous procedures and on the experience and professionalism of examiners. In the GCSE, we have a combination of internal and external assessment. The precise balance depends on the syllabus of the course, and all markers are issued by the examining body with comprehensive instructions. They attend examiners' meetings, which are aimed at ensuring that standards are rigorously, fairly and consistently applied. Furthermore, to safeguard standards, all the GCSE examining groups operate a process of moderation—in old language, of checking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West is asking what a school or parent can do if, despite the extensive care that is taken by the examining groups, a mistake is made. The scope of the appeal system that is now available to GCSE candidates is a little more extensive than used to exist for their predecessors who took 0-levels and CSEs. When the GCSE was introduced in 1988, there was instituted for the first time, in addition to the appeal structure of the individual examining bodies, a final court of appeal, which was operated by the joint council for the GCSE.

In 1990, a third tier—a final, final court of appeal, or a House of Lords—was added to the appeal structure in the shape of the Independent Appeals Authority for School Examinations. It was set up to deal with appeals that failed to be resolved with the framework of GCSE and A-AS examining bodies' appeal arrangements. Recent years have seen only relatively few such cases in respect of the GCSE. The joint council dealt with only six cases following the 1989 examinations, and only one last year.

There have been some instances where pupils, parents and schools have been left with a sense of injustice, which is damaging to the reputation of the GCSE and AS examinations and to public confidence in them. The new authority provides an additional assurance of fair dealing.

The remit of the independent authority goes well beyond what has previously been available. It can ask an examining body to reconsider a case and it can examine such issues as the suitability of an examination paper, the validity of a marking scheme, the quality of the marking and the way in which grade boundaries are set. The authority will publish its conclusions and the underlying reasons, and where an examining body has been asked to reconsider a case its response will similarly be published. The authority has been set up as a final arbiter. It supplements the appeals procedures of the examining groups, but as it is independent of the groups, it will provide an additional assurance of fair dealing and one hopes it will strengthen public confidence in school examinations.

Having given my hon. Friend an overview of the GCSE and the assessment procedures, I turn to the case to which he referred. He has already persistently brought it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science, in correspondence and I sympathise with the frustration felt by the candidate and her parents. I agree that in principle it would be desirable for all disputed examination results to be re-checked. However, an enormous number of candidates are disappointed with their grades, and it would not be practicable in terms of time and money for the examining bodies to re-check every case. Checking by an independent body with a separate team of examiners would involve even greater cost, all at the taxpayer's expense. I need hardly add that all the re-checking in the world does not guarantee that the candidates and all their parents would find that the grade finally awarded matched their best expectations.

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page , South West Hertfordshire

It is immaterial whether the grade is put up, put down or remains the same. It is the principle of being able to have it checked that I ask my hon. Friend to uphold. I will not say that the girl's grade is immaterial, but it is irrelevant to what I am asking for today.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Education and Science)

That could hardly have been put more clearly. That is the principle at the heart of the debate and I shall come to it.

The Government cannot instruct schools to lodge appeals on behalf of candidates. However, in the case of maintained schools, parents are entitled to pursue the matter with their local education authority. From the papers that I have seen on the case, the authority was closely involved and concluded that the school's decision not to lodge an appeal was justified.

I emphasise the importance that we attach to having the correct appeals machinery in place. I spoke earlier of the independent appeals authority, which was set up only a year ago. Its remit and method of operation may not be precisely what is required, but both will be scrutinised after the authority's first two years of operation—that is, later this year—and a report will be made to the Secretary of State.

This evening my hon. Friend has drawn the attention of the House to the fact that there is currently no way in which a pupil or his or her parents can appeal against an examination result unless the appeal has either the school's or the examination centre's support. I have explained why that is the case, but I agree that serious consideration will have to be given to the matter when the operation of the independent appeals authority is reviewed later this year. I shall certainly ensure that the criticisms of the present appeals procedure that my hon. Friend made are given consideration at that time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.