Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 13:12 UK

What to do if grades disappoint

By George Turnbull
Exams Doctor, Ofqual

George Turnbull

Short of a grade or two? Olympic marathons come to mind. But they have nothing on that race for a college or university place.

The winning post lies ahead for some - but for others it may be a last-minute dash that is needed to secure a place, if grades disappoint.

So don't hang around if you have lost out. Just make sure that you are ready for that final spurt to the finishing line - should it be needed and you are short of a grade or two.

The victors of the early games were crowned with wreaths from a sacred olive tree that grew behind the temple of Zeus. The winners marched around the grove to the accompaniment of a flute while admirers chanted songs written by a prominent poet.

What an incentive! So not a lot has changed.

Do not grab at straws

But no-one should give up hope on results day. There is much that can be done and many a place has been taken at an alternative institution when results are poorer than expected - often leading to more appropriate courses and more satisfying careers.

Your first choice institutions may still accept you, of course, even with lower grades - so check with them first. Or they may offer you that alternative course which makes you happy. Now you too can join in the chanting.

Perseverance is the key to securing that place. And there will still be places - but not necessarily on the course of your choice.

But grabbing at straws is not the solution. Think carefully before choosing and get as much advice as you can on the courses offered at the various institutions. Know all you can about them and try to visit before final decisions are taken.

And don't get your mother to do the phoning. She may get a place, but you won't.

Mistakes do happen

Could the examining board have made a mistake, and if so then what can you do about it?

Mistakes do happen - especially as one mark might make the difference between an A and a B if you are at the top of the B band - as with other grades too. And although this could hardly be judged an error as such, that extra mark would give a higher grade and perhaps secure that elusive place.

Extreme measures are taken to ensure the accuracy of the grades awarded - and that they truly reflect each student's abilities on the basis of the exam work submitted.

In England, the independent regulator Ofqual will police the whole process. It is a truly professional operation with the interests of students, and fair play, at its heart.

But with an estimated 26 million A-level and GCSE examination papers from one million students to be marked by 50,000 examiners and then graded, it is perhaps conceivable that something may give on occasion despite the elaborate system of checks, double checks and scrutinies that are an inherent part of the system.

Challenging your grades

Marking is not an exact science and wherever human judgement is brought to bear, there will be professional differences of opinion, which the exam boards endeavour to ensure are kept to a minimum.

So if a paper was re-marked and the examiner awarded an additional mark which produced a higher grade - if that paper were marked yet again, it may well revert to the original mark and grade. That's a fact and no one can change it.

Challenging your grades is relatively straightforward. But only your school can do this on your behalf, by raising an "enquiry about results" with the exam board.

Such action needs to be approved by you as your grades can go down as well as up, or simply remain as they are.

So generally speaking, if you are already at the bottom of a grade band, the loss of a mark will put you down a grade, and a lot of marks would need to be gained in order to get you onto a higher grade level.

A fee is charged for these services but if your grades are changed, then that fee will be returned.

Deadline dates and costs

Your school can request photocopies of exam scripts, or actual scripts. It can ask for a clerical check from around 10 and a re-mark from about 35 for A-level.

The check will ensure that marks are recorded and transferred correctly and that totals are correct - whereas re-marks entail the re-marking of your script by a senior examiner.

Priority re-marks can be requested too from around 40, for those students with university or college places at stake.

Fees generally will vary across the boards, but the closing date for priority A-level re-marking is commonly set by all boards at 22 August, while all other requests are to be received by 20 September.

And if still unhappy?

But if still unhappy because your grades are unchanged or lowered, your school can take the matter further by lodging an appeal with the examining board.

An internal investigation would then be held in up to two stages, the latter involving an independent scrutineer.

If the matter is still not resolved, then the case could be taken by your school to an external and independent appeal through the Examinations Appeals Board (EAB).

But that entire process will not be completed in time to affect your grades for entry to university or college this year. And only a handful of cases ever get this far.

Get advice now!

Your school will be able to offer valuable advice as will experts on the free phone line run by the DCSF: 0808 100 8000.

And if your questions relate to the examining system, then you can contact me on for a personal and detailed response - or visit my pages on the Ofqual website (see links, above right).

George Turnbull spent almost 30 years in a senior position with the UK's largest examining board and is now Ofqual's Exams Doctor.

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