HMC Chairman delivers keynote speech at annual conference

As the HMC annual conference opens, Chris King uses inaugural speech to call for exam reform in all UK schools

Chris King, Headmaster of Leicester Grammar School and Chairman of HMC, will use his inaugural speech today to launch an attack on the exam system and call for wide scale and urgent reform to benefit young people in all types of schools across the UK.

The current situation is untenable. We are facing a perfect storm, of both decreasing public confidence and increasing pressure in the system, as the greater emphasis on end of year exams creates even more work for examiners over the summer. HMC has helped lead the way on reform and under my Chairmanship we will not rest until the UK has the quality-assured exam system its young people deserve. 

Speaking to an audience of 275 heads of the UK’s leading independent schools, Chris King will point out that the “cottage industry” exam marking system is not fit for purpose and has led to 414,000 exam marks being challenged last year, with 77,450 grades being revised – a 42% increase on 2013.

Whilst these figures are very high, he will point out that they potentially mask the true extent of the problem as some state schools in particular are unable to find the time and resources to battle with a “byzantine” appeals system.

He will announce that HMC has joined a new task force of experts from the exam boards and other associations of headteachers to tackle the growing problem and say: “In schools across the UK this summer pupils have yet again been given frankly unbelievable marks or grades which catapults them into Clearing or, worse, into limbo, as their university of choice hangs onto them whilst deciding what to do.

“We know of cases where, after re-remarks come through, pupils are confirmed as having exceeded the offer of their first choice university yet have nevertheless been told – inexplicably – that they no longer have a place for that year. So they have been let down twice; first by inaccurate marking and second by a university unwilling to behave honourably. We all know this can have a terrible impact on the young people concerned.

“So why is this happening? Because of a lack of full accountability by exam boards, an inadequate examiner workforce, a confusing and byzantine appeals process and, it seems, more ruthless behaviour by some universities.

“And how do we know this? First, exam boards are under no obligation to release their re-grade statistics subject by subject. Nor are schools told which exam boards are the worst offenders on remarking. Second, Ofqual figures suggest that six per cent of examiners are ‘inadequate’; six per cent translates to a vast number of questions that potentially are inadequately marked. Official statistics show that a total of 77,450 GCSE and A-level exam papers were re-graded last year after results day – a shocking figure. We know that not all schools have the time and resources to battle with the system so in fact the true number could be higher.

“The fact is the exam workforce has been operating as a cottage industry which, despite some modernisation, now needs to reinvent itself for the 21st century. HMC has been working closely with Ofqual for three years, to identify the true extent of the problems and to find solutions. Considerable progress has been made but there is still the necessity for further serious reform.”

“HMC is calling for the following as a matter of urgency:

1.     Better set and better marked exams to create consistency across subjects and boards. A current example of inadequacy is modern foreign language A Levels where, despite changes to exam paper design this year, we still do not trust that the rank ordering of pupils is always correct. This is particularly frustrating given the recent reports of UK business being hindered by poor foreign language skills.

2.     A larger and more skilled marker workforce which is better trained, reasonably paid and more accountable.

3.     A fair and transparent appeals process which is easy to understand, equally accessible to all, and focuses on the quality of marking not the analysis of procedure.

“Until this happens, HMC will continue to demand re-marks and intervene with universities who are refusing to honour offers made to mismarked candidates. In addition, we are starting to work closely with exam boards and other heads associations to plan for significant improvements to the number and quality of tomorrow’s examiners. Independent schools already provide more than our share of qualified examiners and together we need to find ways of encouraging more to take part from all schools and colleges.”

Whilst emphasising their excellence and value, Mr King will challenge HMC school Heads to step back and consider the next phase of their development, and ask themselves whether the education they provide continues to prepare our young people fully for the world in which they will grow up and work.  

 “Alongside our colleagues in the state sector, we are undergoing some of the most rapid educational, social and technological change ever experienced which will demand we transform the way we run our schools…But this is exactly the time to be looking forward and using our cumulative experience to create a better future for our pupils and for all pupils. 

“We face an inevitable challenge, to remodel our approach to teaching and learning and give our pupils new skills, attitudes and knowledge to help them solve problems we have yet to encounter. 

“As a community of some of the greatest schools in the country – and the world – HMC has every reason to face these challenges with optimism. We have a centuries-old foundation of outstanding, liberal, holistic education on which to build.”

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