Exam errors – Autumn update

October 10th, 2011 by Michael Lee

Two previous posts on this blog in July 2010 (see Jane Oldham’s here and mine here) have considered the potential legal consequences arising out of the exam paper errors which occurred in summer 2011. Department for Education statistics now show that almost 140,000 papers were affected.

The Department for Education’s regulatory response to this issue is now taking shape. The Department has announced that Ofqual will be given new powers to fine exam boards which make mistakes in exam papers. The direct imposition of financial penalties will add to Ofqual’s current powers, which include withdrawing an exam board’s recognition.

At present the proposals are in outline form. A maximum penalty of 10% of the organisation’s turnover (as opposed to its profit) certainly appears significant, but the circumstances in which this will be imposed remain to be seen. It will also be interesting to see how exam boards react to the prospect of being fined, as opposed to having their recognition, or right to offer certain qualifications, withdrawn.

The Department for Education hopes to provide Ofqual with the new power before the summer 2012 exams. Ofqual is to conduct a 12-week consultation in relation to the proposals, following which legislation is likely to be introduced. As such, more details of the new power are likely to emerge in due course.


New Teachers’ Standards

July 19th, 2011 by Michael Lee

The Government has recently published new Teachers’ Standards which will take effect from September 2012.

The new Standards are intended to be more straightforward and concise than those previously in place. The different sets of standards issued by different bodies have been replaced by a single set of Teachers’ Standards running to just four sides. The new Standards apply to all teachers, regardless of what stage of their careers they are at.

One aspect of the new Standards which has drawn media attention (see, for example the BBC and the Telegraph), is the requirement that teachers must not undermine “fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.

It has been suggested that this is intended to make it easier to address concerns about teachers with extremist views imparting their opinions onto their students. Yet on its face, the definition of “fundamental British values” appears to be very broad and could in practice be engaged in a range of scenarios (consider, perhaps, a debate about different faiths in the context of religious education). How this particular standard will be applied in practice once in force remains to be seen.


Exam errors – update

July 14th, 2011 by Michael Lee

In a previous post Jane Oldham has questioned what remedies might be available to students (or their parents) if the exam papers which they are set contain errors. One of the issues raised in the post was the difficulty of establishing causation of loss.

Ofqual has recently provided an update of the progress of its inquiry into errors in the recent round of examinations which is of interest in this regard. It gives an insight into discussions which are taking place between the awarding bodies and other interested parties in an attempt to minimise the impact of any mistakes and to try and ensure that students are not disadvantaged. The effectiveness of such measures would clearly be relevant in determining what would have happened had there been no errors in the papers.

Further updates from Ofqual and the awarding bodies are expected in due course.


School’s uniform policy found to be discriminatory

June 17th, 2011 by Michael Lee

Giving judgment today in SG v St Gregory’s Catholic Science College [2011] EWHC 1452 (Admin), Collins J has held that a school’s ban of the cornrows hairstyle, in so far as it applied to the child in question, was unlawful. The decision (see the full judgment here) that the school’s refusal to make an exception to the policy for the child in question constituted indirect race discrimination is likely to have significant implications for those running schools and the practitioners who advise them.

One of the many interesting points in the judgment concerns Collins J’s consideration of the school’s argument that a voluntarily adopted socio-cultural attribute did not attract the protection of the discrimination legislation. Collins J rejected this argument, holding that family and social customs can form “part of ethnicity”, and that cultural, family and social conditions are often what bring a person of a given ethnicity with the scope of the race discrimination legislation.

The decision that the policy could not be objectively justified also requires attention. The school put evidence before the court explaining that more distinctive haircuts (such as cornrows and shaven heads) can become badges of ethnic or gang identity and foster disunity between groups in schools. Such styles were accordingly banned. Collins J did not take issue with this particular aspect of the school’s case. However, the school also argued that it could not make an exception to the policy in relation to a given style (here cornrows) because this would undermine the policy, which had to be applied generally if it was to be effective. Collins J rejected this argument, holding that an exception need only be made where a genuine cultural and family practice made conformity with the policy impossible. This was, Collins J reasoned, little different to the exceptions made for those of different religious belief and would not undermine the generally nature of the policy.

A further argument that differences in treatment between boys and girls amounted to sex discrimination was not upheld.

It remains the case that schools are free to adopt uniform policies, and can require their pupils to adhere to them. However, in the light of this decision it seems that the school must consider making exceptions not only for those of certain religious beliefs, but also for pupils who contend that a cultural or family practice means that they cannot conform. This aspect of the judgment, in particular, is likely to draw the attention of those tasked with managing uniform policies in schools.


Michael Gove launches a review of the national curriculum

January 20th, 2011 by Michael Lee

The Conservatives’ 2010 Manifesto, “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain” promised to “restore rigour to the curriculum”, as part of a commitment to raising standards in schools. Following the General Election, the Coalition Agreement then recorded the Coalition’s commitment to giving schools greater freedom over the curriculum.

More details have emerged today as to how the potentially competing aims of increasing both rigour and flexibility are to be met, as Education Secretary Michael Gove launched an expert panel tasked with reviewing the national curriculum.

Reducing the number of compulsory subjects appears to be one possible means of giving schools more flexibility on curriculum matters. The panel will consider which subjects ought to be compulsory for pupils of different ages, with only English, maths, science and PE guaranteed to remain so for those of all ages (though religious education will also remain a statutory requirement). Mr Gove has also indicated that the new curriculum will be less prescriptive in relation to teaching methods, another way in which flexibility may be increased.

However, whilst the number of compulsory subjects may be cut, the new curriculum looks set to contain more detail as to the specific facts which are to be taught in schools. Writing in the Daily Telegraph today, Mr Gove criticises, for example, the absence of historical figures and country names from the current history and geography curricula. With the new curriculum set to address this issue, it appears that whilst teachers may be given more flexibility about how they teach, they may face greater regulation in relation to what they teach.

Mr Gove announced that the new curriculam for English, science, maths and PE is to be introduced from September 2013. Other subjects’ new curricula will be introduced the following year. Precisely how the balance between rigour and freedom is eventually struck remains to be seen.