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INDEPENDENT INQUIRY INTO 'A' LEVELS ORDERED BY EDUCATION SECRETARY

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Speech by education secretary Estelle Morris today: ...
Speech by education secretary Estelle Morris today:

'Thank you for coming this morning. Can I welcome Ken Boston, the new Chief Executive of QCA. As you know he was appointed earlier this year and started with the authority just seven days ago.

I want to respond to the issues that have been raised this week about standards in A level marking.

First of all let me make clear the framework which Parliament has established for the setting and maintaining of those standards. QCA is the statutory independent body set up to maintain the standards and integrity of the examination system. It lays down and enforces a code of practice with which the exam boards have to comply. Its officers are actively involved with the awarding bodies in ensuring that the code of practice is kept to. Ensuring the quality and consistent standards of the qualifications is a key part of QCA's job.

It is a fundamental principle that the government has no role in this and nor should it have. It would be entirely wrong for us or any government of any persuasion to get involved in any aspect of marking, assessing or grading students. Neither I, nor any of my Ministers, have had any conversation of this type with examining bodies. Nor will they ever do so. For the record, I have every confidence that the same could be said of previous Conservative governments as well.

The integrity of the examination system demands that it is free of political involvement. When we have been accused over the years of the dumbing down of exams, of making it easier for students to pass, we have been robust in our denials. In this case where there are accusations that we have intervened to make the assessment system harder we are equally robust. I want to state categorically that there has been no political interference at all in the workings of the QCA and the examining boards.

But it is my responsibility to make sure that that independent system works fairly and efficiently in the interests of our young people. I put great store by exams. They are a key part of our education system. A clear message is constantly given to teachers, parents and young people about their importance. They have a right to expect that at the end of their courses their examination papers will be marked fairly and consistently.

After all at its heart this is not an arcane debate about procedures and processes. It is about the exam results of individual pupils who have studied hard and whose futures are at stake. A large part of my job is about our young people and their futures. It would be wrong for their opportunities to be damaged. In difficult circumstances I will do whatever I can for them.

There are three key issues. Let me deal with them each in turn. First, as is always the case, some individual students have asked for their papers to be re-marked. That is taking place now.

But can I look at the number of complaints that have been made. Of the three examining boards 8,700 enquiries have been made to AQA. That is slightly up on last year's 7,400. Edexcel has received a lower number of complaints than last year. However, OCR figures are up considerably from 1,618 to over 4,000. What is clear from this is that this year there seems to be a specific problem with OCR.

That is why Ken Boston is carrying out an inquiry into course marking at 100 schools. Ken, as the newly appointed Chief Executive, is uniquely placed to do this and his work continues.

Secondly, the complaints and allegations which have been made, particularly by HMC, are around the way in which the grade boundaries were set in certain subjects and that were not done in a proper manner. More than that, there are allegations that the QCA put pressure on AQA, Edexcel and OCR to manipulate them.

This is a most serious allegation, and I want it investigated speedily and independently. I have asked Mike Tomlinson, former HMCI, to carry out this independent inquiry.

It will investigate the evidence for the specific allegations made by HMC and particularly those made against both QCA and OCR, including their roles in setting grade boundaries. But let me be clear, this is not about the remarking of every script. It is about making sure that the conversion from marks to grades was determined according to proper standards and procedures.

I've asked for Mike Tomlinson's initial report on this within a week.

Thirdly, there is the wider debate that has been sparked off about A level standard setting in general. So as a second stage to his work, Mike will examine the process for maintaining consistent standards at A level and the role that QCA and the awarding bodies play in ensuring this.

It is not a new debate. It takes place every August. But it is a damaging debate. It undermines public confidence in examinations. It leaves hard working students doubting that they have got the results they deserve. The events of the last few days though have been more than the annual soul searching about whether our children are getting brighter. It can't go on. I want it dealt with.

The A level is the gold standard of our qualifications and if there is any doubt that the standard is being devalued, we must act. These issues cannot and will not be left to fester.

This second stage will report to me and Ken Boston and its findings and my response will be published in full. I've asked for an initial report by November.

The overall majority of pupils who have been through the A level system this year as in previous years can be absolutely confident that they have been fairly marked and have the right grades. There has clearly been a problem with a limited number that we are now looking at.

I am determined that the integrity of the system will be upheld.'

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