Call to Observer began A-level scandal story

Bright: uncovered "nationwide problem"

The nationwide scandal over "down-marking" A-level pupils’ exam papers began with a telephone call from a concerned parent to former Observer education editor Martin Bright.

It led to Bright, now the paper’s home affairs editor, and education editor Tracy McVeigh stirring up the beginnings of a "fixing" fiasco that he now believes goes right to the top of the Department of Education.

"It was a classic newspaper investigation that fanned out from an individual to a general pattern," Bright said.

The first call, at the end of August, came from Andrew Wheen, whose daughter, Laura, was at a state school in Baldock, Hertfordshire. "Laura had these bizarre A-level results," said Bright. "We get a lot of calls from concerned parents but something struck me about this.  They seemed so peculiar – the now-familiar pattern of a string of A grades followed by a U – that we thought we’d look into it."

The Observer had run a story five years ago about the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA (OCR) examination board.  "I had retained a certain suspicion about them and the way they operated," Bright explained.

Laura’s subject was psychology and the journalists discovered that a number of students who had taken OCR psychology at her school had similar problems. Teacher Veronica Brough was also concerned.  She contacted other school heads of psychology and found the unhappiness was widespread. Teachers in other subjects also complained, particularly about course work being undermarked.

"By the end of August, it seemed there was a nationwide problem," said Bright. On 1 September, The Observer printed a story headlined "Teachers fear A-level grades were ‘fixed’". Dozens of e-mails and letters from parents, teachers and examiners came to the newspaper, all with the same story.

The Department of Education and the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) promised an immediate inquiry but after 10 days passed with no movement, The Observer and the rest of the media revisited the story.

Bright said: "It has been described as the foot and mouth crisis of the education world and we believe the responsibility goes right to the top."

The Observer is putting questions to the QCA and the exam boards to uncover what communications went on between them and the Department of Education. It is also putting in Freedom of Information requests to get details of such communications.

Last Sunday, the newspaper took a look at the role of Sir William Stubbs, head of the QCA, and his assertion that no pressure was brought to bear on the boards to downmark.

 

By Jean Morgan

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