AQA has been fined £350,000 – the largest ever handed out by Ofqual – and will compensate schools and colleges by £740,000 after “serious breaches” of rules over re-marks.

The exam board failed to ensure re-marks and moderation were not carried out by the original marker, or by someone with no personal interest in the outcome.

Ofqual said around 50,000 re-marks or moderations were affected, equating to around 7 per cent of all re-marks carried out by the exam board each year.

AQA said around 3,000 centres were affected and will receive between £110 and £440 in compensation. AQA could not provide a numbers breakdown by schools, sixth form colleges and general FE colleges.

Ofqual said the issue with the re-marks were a result of “failings in AQA’s online marking system, the limited availability of reviewers in low entry qualifications and the relatively small size of some marking and review panels”. It said AQA had not ensured its workforce was of “appropriate size and competence” to manage risks.

It added there was “no evidence” to show any learners or centres had received the wrong outcome, but said the issues were “serious breaches” of conditions that are “integral to the effectiveness and purpose of the system of reviewing marking and moderation”.

“The failures therefore have the potential to seriously undermine public confidence in the review of marking, moderation and appeals system, and the qualifications system more generally”.

Ofqual said the remark issues spanned across 2016, 2017 and 2018. Although the majority of the re-marks affected (93 per cent) involved individual, anonymised answers, seven per cent involved reviews of whole exam scripts.

Mark Bedlow, AQA’s interim chief executive, said the problem was a “past technical issue” that has now been resolved, and insisted in the “vast majority of cases” in involved “one isolated, anonymised answer from a paper being reviewed by the senior examiner who originally marked it”.

“But reviews should always be carried out by a fresh pair of eyes and we’re sorry that, for a small proportion in the past, this wasn’t the case.”

The £350,000 fine is the largest ever handed out by Ofqual. The second largest fine handed out is believed to be the £175,000 exam board OCR was ordered to pay last year for its Romeo and Juliet question gaffe.

Separately, AQA has also today been handed a £50,000 penalty because its marking scheme for A-level French exam in 2018 was “not fit for purpose”.

Ofqual said the French mark scheme did not take into account all evidence or allow for the level of attainment demonstrated by some students to be reflected in their marks.

This affected “a small number” of students’ university choices, but AQA did liaise with UCAS and universities to ensure no one missed out on a place as a result.                                                                        

It also said AQA missed opportunities to identify the problem and did not manage the incident appropriately at first.

Bedlow accepted the mark scheme was “too prescriptive”, and said affected learners received the “extra marks they deserved”.

At the start of September, AQA’s chief executive Toby Salt stepped down after two years in the role, citing health and family reasons.

AQA failed to spot re-mark issue

AQA’s response to the re-mark issue has also been criticised, after it emerged the exam board had been alerted to two incidents of this nature through appeals in 2016 and 2017.

Ofqual said the exam board had failed to notify them of the incidents despite having reason to believe they could result in an adverse effect.

Ofqual only discovered the problem in September 2018, when it undertook a review of AQA’s appeals process and discovered some re-marks and moderation had been carried out by the same person who conducted the initial marking or moderation, and asked AQA to investigate further. AQA formally notified it of a potential breach in November.

Rebuke for ‘nearly identical’ English question

The beleaguered exam board has also been rebuked today by Ofqual’s chief regulator, Sally Collier, for including a question in its 2018 English Literature GCSE exam that was “nearly identical” to a question it had used in practice papers.

Ofqual has not imposed a fine. The regulator said although the inclusion of the question “raised serious concerns around AQA’s systems of planning and internal controls”, the exam board had since made “significant improvements” and provided “comprehensive statistical analysis” showing there was no significant advantage or disadvantage to pupils.

Bedlow said AQA had told Ofqual they would be including the question the day before the exam, and said the question was used “because it’s important that no -one thinks a topic won’t come up if it’s already featured in a past paper.”

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