This scandal is not about my child, although he was one of its casualties. So I’ll begin with his story – but I want it to speak for the thousands of young people who are betrayed every year by our appalling, dysfunctional examination system.
According to the exam regulator, Ofqual, two out of five teenagers taking certain A-levels will open their results tomorrow to find they have been given an “unreliable” grade. My heart goes out to them. I know all too well the pain that they and their parents will feel.
Exactly 12 months ago, we were enjoying a family holiday in Italy with my son and his friend. As A-level results day approached, there was a slight static of apprehension in the air, but no real cause for concern. Both boys had worked hard and were expected to do really well. A dropped grade here or there would make no difference to their university prospects. It felt like one of those blessed weeks when you are glad to be alive.
And then, one morning, we were woken as the door of our bedroom crashed open.
Our son was standing at the foot of the bed, holding out his laptop in front of him, a look of anguished incredulity on his young face. He had made his top predicted grades in two subjects, but in his best subject, drama, he got a C.
The computer insisted that this was the case but, obviously, there had to be some mistake. In his mock exams, he had scored almost full marks. Dropping down to an A was a possibility – you can always slip up on the day. A B would have told us something was amiss. A C was so disappointing it defied belief. What on earth had happened?
It took only a few minutes for my son’s drama group to compare notes. Not one student predicted A* or A had achieved their grade. In fact, by some cruel inversion, the best students had ended up with the worst results.
To give you some context, this was no ordinary sixth-form drama group. Two of my son’s friends, who had won drama scholarships, hoped to be professional actors. The summer before, they had all taken a production of Macbeth to the Edinburgh Fringe. A bunch of 17-year-old novices formed themselves into a troupe to stage that great tragedy. I remember one cast member telling me how, initially, he had struggled with Shakespeare’s verse, but the director had spent hours teaching it to him until “it felt more natural than the way I talk normally”.
As a parent, the moments are rare indeed when you feel maybe things didn’t work out too badly. Hearing that my boy, that director, had helped his friends to master Shakespeare was one of those moments. How could it possibly be that this ardent group of young thespians had performed so well on stage, but abysmally in the subject they loved?
For a moment, I did wonder if the lads had been too cocky and winged it in the exam. That theory was disproved when we found out that the school’s brainiest girl had also dropped three grades. “Sir,” I overheard my son quip to his teacher, “you might think I could mess up, but there’s no way Jess would ever get a C in anything.”
Some of you may be thinking: “So what? Get over it!”
There was a time when I would have agreed. But it turned out that this crazy cock-up had devastating consequences. We were very lucky a young person didn’t take their own life. Almost every member of that gifted group immediately lost their place at university.
In vain did the school try to argue that their mediocre grade in AQA drama in no way reflected their actual ability. Unfortunately, we live in an age where lecturers in higher education are no longer able to use their discretion and make allowances for suspicious setbacks. Computer says no if you don’t get the required grades, and that’s that.
Between them, my son and his mates lost precious places at Leeds, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford and Exeter. A big shout-out to York, which showed both compassion and shrewdness when it snapped up two terrific boys despite their rogue result. “Mum, someone needs to fix this,” my son said. Yes, they most certainly did. What I didn’t know back then is these things are practically designed not to be fixed.
While the school started the appeals process to the AQA exam board, I did some digging. On Twitter, I asked if any other kids had suffered problems with AQA drama. Within hours, I had more than 30 replies from distraught teenagers.
Each told the same story: high predicted grade, the exam went really well, then – bang! – inexplicably poor mark followed by loss of uni place. Several major private schools turned out to have suffered the same misfortune as my son’s, including Dulwich College and King’s School Wimbledon, both with famously good drama departments.
The head of drama at a London comprehensive told me he was shocked that his excellent students had done so poorly. But, as most of the kids had unconditional offers, there wasn’t any point going to the expense of appealing.
I also heard in confidence from lots of teachers and examiners. They painted a deeply disturbing picture of an assessment system that makes more mistakes than the most persistent truant.
“The exam boards are secretive and very reluctant to admit error,” explained one. “Schools are scared to take legal action because they worry that will jeopardise the chances of next year’s pupils. So the exam boards exercise huge power over children’s lives with little or no accountability.”
Indeed. My son and his friend’s practical work had received almost full marks from both an internal and external examiner, but we found out that a chunk of marks was deducted unilaterally when AQA decreed that the marking was not in line with standards.
Yet no one who did the deducting had seen the performances; all the best actors were brutally marked down. Imagine if Red Rum and other front-runners in the Grand National had been told they did too well compared with the 2.30 at Haydock so they must be handicapped and those at the back allowed to overtake them. Madness.
One senior examiner told me that people would be horrified if they knew how inaccurate A-level and GCSE grades were. If my son scored A* in English then, in theory, he should have aced his drama papers – “but it’s fair to say that drama is fishing in a very shallow pool for examiners”.
You can say that again. When the school recalled the group’s exam scripts, the margins contained a number of astonishing howlers. One student had written that “my production will be staged in the round”. The examiner commented: “But where will the audience sit?”
In the weeks that followed, my anger grew as I collected more exam board travesties.
One mother emailed to say that her daughter’s drama class had suffered exactly the same nightmare with AQA A-level a few years earlier. Inexplicably, her daughter and other able classmates got Ds, even Es. The girl retook the exam and was awarded the A she should have had in the first place, but, by then, the damage was done; her uni place lost, her confidence shattered. The school has since dropped drama.
You know, I used to be shocked when I heard of schools ditching “subjective” courses like drama and art. Surely, presentation skills and creative thinking were to be encouraged in kids who increasingly feel like silicon chips on a production line? Now I curse the day we allowed our son to run the risk of taking a subject where his efforts could be so traduced. When his drama papers were eventually remarked by AQA, his score had gone up – just enough to leave him a single point off a B.
B-------. Why not bump kids up to a higher grade if they deserve it?
You would have thought that one circumstance in which it was “appropriate” to increase marks would be when a large number of students have received grades wildly adrift of their predicted. My own research leads me to suspect that the number of pupils who received the wrong grade in AQA A-level drama in 2018 alone could easily run into the hundreds.
I supported Michael Gove’s efforts to reform our examination system. He was spot on in his conviction that standards had been lowered through modules and coursework and that a return to a traditional, exam-based system would help to restore the “gold-standard” of the A-level qualification. Alas, Mr Gove’s reforms came in far too quickly, giving teachers inadequate time to adjust. (One school I know of had to put on emergency evening lessons because the new textbooks didn’t arrive until shortly before the exam.)
Nor was the Education Secretary in post long enough to turn his attention to our exam boards, which compete against each other for customers, greedily snaffling up huge amounts of public money for a service that is too often erratic, unfit for purpose and impervious to criticism. I ask you, what other business would be permitted by its regulator to get away with a 40 per cent failure rate in its service?
Yet that is the percentage of pupils who some estimate, tomorrow morning, will discover they have not have been awarded what Ofqual calls the “definitive” grade because of inconsistent marking. This isn’t a faulty fridge we’re talking about here, these are children’s lives. It’s absolutely shameful.
Reform is urgently required. For a start, the UK should switch to the common-sense system used in other countries where students know their grades before finding a university place. There should be one central examination board responsible for setting and marking every paper. Look at France where all secondary-school pupils sit the Baccalauréat, which is organised by the French Ministry of Education. Papers are double-marked by highly trained examiners and, as a result, appeals are unheard of because impartial, rigorous assessment makes them unnecessary.
By contrast, our own GCSE and A-level results are a national lottery unworthy of the youngsters who set so much store by them. “It’s only because there are so many unconditional university offers and state schools usually won’t pay for an appeal that so many exam boards get away with it,” one senior examiner explained.
In other words, the true extent of our exam boards’ appalling record is hidden. State schools can’t afford to appeal if a pupil gets an unaccountably bad grade, which is grossly unfair to less well-off youngsters. Private schools, under pressure from parents, will appeal – but then boards like AQA are ticked off by Ofqual if they allow too many “review requests”.
At a time when our young people are under unprecedented pressure to do well in exams, with a related and truly frightening epidemic of anxiety and self-harm, the exam system itself is rigged against them. Grades have never mattered more, or been less trustworthy.
To get a good university place, some members of my son’s drama group took an extra year to cram another A-level; not one would re-sit drama. Why would they? Undoubtedly, they were cheated. But so were countless others who didn’t have the same advantages and support. Tomorrow, thousands more will be added to their ranks.
I very rarely give advice in this column, but this issue has affected me too deeply to hold back. If you have children, or grandchildren, who are thinking about taking drama A-level, please, please counsel them not to. It has blighted so many wonderful young lives, causing disillusion and depression. “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.”
For the benefit of any AQA drama examiners, that’s from Macbeth. It’s a play by William Shakespeare. I saw a group of young actors put it on once. They did well. Much better than a C.
Read Allison Pearson's weekly column on telegraph.co.uk every Tuesday from 7pm