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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August, 2005, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Exam results: what happens next?
By George Turnbull
Student 'exams doctor', Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

student graphic
The moment of truth looms for a million students
Exam results on a mobile phone straight from the exam board computer may still be wishful thinking for most of the million students who took 26 million A-level and GCSE exam papers.

As the Scottish Qualifications Authority showed with its limited experiment, the technology exists.

But until all parties are fully equipped and connected, that trudge back to school for the results is still on.

And an anxious day it is for all - parents too - as they join forces with their offspring in anticipation and hope that that coveted university place is theirs.

But if it isn't, what can be done and how can we be sure that the exam board has got it right?


The papers are set some 18 months before the exam is taken, and go through a rigorous procedure to ensure that they are error-free and set at the right standard.

Scottish qualifications: 9 August
A-levels: 18 August
GCSEs: 25 August (Northern Ireland 23 August)
And from the point that students are told to put down their pens down and stop writing, to the time that the grades are issued, an elaborate process of checks, inspections, probes and inquiries by regulators and other agencies will ensure fair play and maintenance of consistent standards across all examining boards.

The awarding committee meeting where grades are determined can last for two or three days.

All members will have marked scripts from the current exam and the "chair of examiners" will have an overview of all awarding meetings for that entire subject area.

Proportions of students passing each year do vary marginally, up or down, and there are no set quotas for those who pass or fail.

Statistical information is used too, along with scripts from the archives of past exams to ensure consistent standards from year to year.


Large changes in the proportions passing or failing would be unusual - and therefore there must be good reason for any such change, supported by indisputable evidence.

All recommendations are then received by the "accountable officer" in each board, usually the chief executive, for final decisions to be taken, but always based on solid evidence.

Until the mid to late 1980s, when GCSE was first introduced, the proportion of students gaining particular grades was largely fixed at the same level each year, regardless of how well the students performed.

There was therefore no real evidence to show whether standards were rising or falling nationally, just confirmation that the same proportions were being allowed to pass each year.

Now that the actual standard of performance required to gain a particular grade in any subject has been maintained from year to year, shifts in how students perform nationally can be measured.


Individual exam results can be challenged - but only through the school or college of entry, where full details will be available.

Marks can be checked, papers re-marked and access to a student's scripts given.

There is also a fast-track service for students with university places at stake, but such requests must be received by 28 August.

Students must sign a consent form for a re-mark or clerical check to be undertaken on their behalf, as they could end up with a lower grade than first awarded.

Fees are charged for these post-result services but if the grade awarded is changed, up or down, then those fees will be returned.


Complacency is no friend to those failing to make the grade. If they sit around they'll be left wondering what happened, whilst others get the undergraduate places.

That first choice university may still take you or offer an alternative course which may still tick the right boxes for you.

But avoid making poorly-researched decisions which may be regretted later, by grabbing just anything that is offered.

Institutions welcome intervention and initiative from students - not their mothers. So don't let yours do the phoning.

The Department for Education and Skills has a free impartial and confidential helpline, 0808 100 8000, where personal advice is available, and tailored to each student's particular circumstances.

Experts are there waiting for that call when the results are published. It costs nothing but could be worth a lot.

And any questions about the examination system can be answered personally by contacting me via the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority [see internet links].

But if you don't get the grades you need, don't despair. Look to the future.

Churchill, Einstein and many other poor school performers did, and so can you.

Working harder, or taking a new course or a job might be the answer.

After all, there are more millionaires without A-levels and GCSEs than there are with ... probably.

Whatever you decide, make sure it works for you.

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