Exam board Pearson could be fined a record-breaking £1.35 million for allowing examiners to remark their own work and issuing incorrect certificates – with schools and colleges to be paid £320,000 in compensation.
Regulator Ofqual has published two notices saying it intends to fine the global company based on failures in awarding GCSE and A-levels between 2016 and 2019.
This appears to be Ofqual’s largest ever fine – following a similar breach by AQA pre-pandemic.
It comes as Pearson faces further pressure after delays to thousands of BTEC results this summer.
The first notice relates to Pearson not having enough examiners to carry out complaint marking reviews – impacting nearly 47,000 reviews over the four year period.
These reviews can be requested by schools and colleges – but a fee is attached, unless an error is found.
The failures therefore have the potential to seriously undermine public confidence in the review of marking system, and the qualifications system more generally
Ofqual says Pearson “knowingly” allocated reviews of marking to examiners with previous involvement in the original marking.
It says opportunities to remedy the problem were missed in 2018, when it was raised with Ofqual, meaning another 11,000 reviews were checked by people who had originally marked these papers.
Pearson did not retain a workforce of “appropriate size” to carry out the reviews, Ofqual added.
‘Serious breaches’ of the rules
But the regulator said there is no evidence to show students received the wrong outcomes as 99 per cent of reviews were carried out by Pearson’s most senior examiners who had received training.
However, Pearson’s actions were “serious breaches” of the conditions Ofqual sets out for exam boards.
The regulator said they “are integral to the effectiveness and purpose of the system of reviewing marking.
“The failures therefore have the potential to seriously undermine public confidence in the review of marking system, and the qualifications system more generally.”
Pearson accepted its failings and said it will compensate all schools and colleges with credit notes where reviews of marking were not undertaken by a fresh examiner. This totals £320,510 across 36,807 reviews where a fee was charged.
AQA was caught up in a similar situation in 2020 when it had to pay Ofqual £350,000 and schools and colleges compensation of £737,750 – totalling over £1 million.
But Ofqual said Pearson’s case is “more serious” as it spanned over four years and Pearson missed chances to rectify the situation, resulting in the larger £1.2 million fine.
However this would not exceed 10 per cent of Pearson’s total annual turnover.
Incorrect short course certificates
Ofqual also plans to fine Pearson £150,000 for issuing inaccurate certificates for short course GCSE results in 2017 and 2018.
In total, 8,361 certificates omitted the words ‘short course’ and instead appeared as a full GCSE.
Ofqual said there was a “substantial” delay of nearly two months before Pearson wrote to schools and colleges to recall certificates.
Pearson can now make representations to Ofqual’s enforcement committee before a final amount is decided.
It’s not the first time Pearson has been fined after another certification problem in 2016 – leaving them with a financial penalty of £85,000.
A spokesperson for the board said it accepts the notices, but said both issues were “fixed” by 2020 and Ofqual has confirmed “that no student grades were affected”.
“We will be refunding schools and colleges where re-marking was not fully compliant. We will be making representations on this notice as due process allows.”
Pearson has updated its internal systems so the issue does not happen again and recruited additional examiners to ensure they have enough to allow for fresh marking.
Chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton said she “won’t hesitate to take action that protects the interests of students and the qualifications that open doors for them.
“Ofqual has rules in place to prevent and manage errors and an enforcement system to deal with breaches of those rules. We will use our full powers to hold awarding organisations to account for serious breaches of our rules.”
She added millions of qualifications “have been awarded safely and on time over the last two weeks and students can have full confidence in their grades”.