Magazine article The Spectator

Not a Level Playing Field

Magazine article The Spectator

Not a Level Playing Field

Article excerpt

TOM HILL, a 19-year-old Marlburian (and son of parents with deep pockets, we hope), is suing the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA exam board (commonly known as OCR) that marked his A-levels for damages of up to L100,000. Now here's an odder thing. If many more follow suit -- and there is evidence they will - Oxbridge would have a good case for countersuing the Secretary of State for Education for undermining its own balance sheet and damaging its reputation. Isn't the law fun!

Yes. Believe it or not, Oxford and Cambridge are enjoying what the City calls a `Ratner moment', unique in their long and gilded history, and all because the introduction and marking of the new A-levels was an absolute horlicks. (If you don't believe me, you can read up on the sorry mess on the Qualifications Curriculum Authority's own website on

But first, Tom Hill. As we now know, one exam board artificially lowered grades by hoiking the standards expected of candidates in the second part of A-levels, called A2. The board has admitted that it used a model in which the A-level standard was set a grade above the old exam in the second part, while for AS-levels - the first part the standard was set a grade below. Teachers were informed of neither change in 'demand', which is education-speak for difficulty. But the net result was that just under 2,000 students were awarded final grades lower than they deserved, in order to head off a politically unwelcome rise in grade inflation. And poor Tom got a B in English and a U in one of his history modules.

The examining board at the receiving end of this lawsuit - and the one that has generated most gripes about downgrading - is, of course, the blue-chip OCR board, which Tom accuses of not marking these two papers `honestly and competently'. Tom had hoped to read modern history at Oxford but without his requisite three As he has taken his case not to his fresher's rooms in a wistaria-clad 14th-century quad, but to the High Court.

`Many more will be appealing,' warns Edward Gould, the headmaster of Marlborough and the chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, representing Britain's top private schools, and the man who, in his own words, stuck his head above the parapet and cried foul.

`There were 2,000 upgrades following the re-marking. That's in addition to the 4,000 appeals each year to the QCA, so that's a 50 per cent increase in upgrades. There are a lot of pupils I know of who are planning to take legal action, and the OCR are particularly in the firing line. They are to receive many more challenges.'

Last week Tom received his results for the second time. `Mr Hill from Marlborough got a U and he still got a U,' Mr Benet Steinberg of the OCR's external affairs department told me. `The second part of the A-level has a significantly higher demand than the first part.'

Translated, this means that the exam board's defence is that Tom - who insists he `worked hard' - just didn't cut the mustard on the second, difficult half. His English grade was not bettered by re-marking either.

The OCR has blithely dismissed the Alevel fiasco as no more than a `storm in a teacup'. The board has its own liability insurance, and declares itself vindicated by the low numbers of students (1,945) who have so far had their results upgraded. But, as the least pedantic of dons might point out, this is missing the point as far as our noblest and most ancient of universities are concerned. `The only question that concerns me is the value to the university of our examinations business, which makes its profits from selling A-level papers to places like Singapore. …

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