Decision of the Complaints Committee – 06272-19 Shadforth v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Chris Shadforth, acting on behalf of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Revealed – A-level results are 48% wrong" published on 11 August 2019.
2. The article reported that "two out of five teenagers who sat essay-based A-levels may be awarded the 'wrong' grade when results come out on Thursday because of inconsistent marking, according to research from the exam regulator Ofqual". It went on to report that the study found that "the probability of a candidate not getting the correct grade in subjects such as English and history is between 42% and 48% because examiners mark subjectively. For sociology it is 37% and for geography 35%." The article featured a quote from a Professor at a Centre for Education Research at a named university who said that “Millions have been spent on this new A-level exam system and even now there is a crisis of confidence. The marking in essay-based subjects has been proved wrong on too many occasions and the grade boundaries have been lowered to a dangerous level". The article then featured a quote from Ofqual, which said "It is recognised that the quality of marking in England is among the best in the world. However, we are not complacent".
3. The article was also published in much the same format online under the headline "Revealed – A-level results are 48% wrong", published on 11 August 2019.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. He said that the article had misrepresented Ofqual's report to claim that between 42% and 48% of grades were "wrong". The complainant said that the research, which focused on marking consistency, did not feature the term "wrong" and made no reference to grades being incorrect or wrong. He said that the study reported on marking consistency and emphasised that unlike subjects such as maths, there is not a single right mark for every answer in essay based subjects, and for many assessments experienced examiners may interpret mark schemes to return two different but equally legitimate marks or grades that give a sound reflection of a student's performance. The complainant highlighted that marking consistency is a relative concept and not an absolute concept of right and wrong grades, to use the term wrong in relation to the report was inaccurate. In any event, the complainant said that Ofqual had released material on how many grades were wrongly awarded and that only 1.1% of grades were changed in 2018, in English the figure ranged from 1.2% to 1.8%. He said that he had explained why the article's interpretation of the research was wrong prior to publication, yet this information was not included in the article.
5. The complainant also said that the article had given the misleading impression that Ofqual itself had found that 48% of grades were "wrong", when for the aforementioned reasons, this was not what the study found. The complainant acknowledged that the professor quoted in the article had used the term "wrong" but emphasised that he was not commenting on Ofqual's research specifically. In any event, the term did not appear in quotation marks in the headline and readers would have therefore have understood that Ofqual itself said that 48% of grades were wrong.
6. Where the report was published nine months prior to the article's publication, the complainant criticised the decision to publish the article the same week A-level results were released. He said this was done intentionally to cause distress to those affected by exam pressures.
7. The publication denied that it was inaccurate to report that 48% of grades were "wrong". It said that the study had found that 52% of grades in English language and literature were "definitive", defined in the study as the grade a senior examiner would return; this contrasted with mathematics where the probability of a grade being definitive was 96%. The publication said that it was disingenuous to claim that an unambiguous grade could be awarded to students, only for Ofqual to find that nearly half of the awarded grades were not "definitive" i.e. not the mark awarded by a senior examiner. Where one student could be awarded a B, when a different marker could award a C, the use of the term "wrong" was not inaccurate. The publication noted that if an examiner's marking does not conform to the "definitive grade" established by a senior marker, disciplinary action would be brought against that marker. The publication questioned why if both grades were legitimate, as claimed by the complainant, how Ofqual could account for these actions.
8. The publication also said that the complainant's position that Ofqual had already published data on the amount of wrong grades awarded was flawed. It said that Ofqual only recorded grades which had been challenged and subsequently changed, roughly 5.6%. It said that Ofqual was happy to refer to grades being wrongly awarded when they were changed but objected to the newspaper using this terminology. The publication highlighted that in both instances, both parties are referring to cases where the grade awarded by the marker differed to that given by the senior marker. It noted that it was not credible to argue that inconsistent marking cannot be described as wrong, while simultaneously accepting the marking could be wrong when that inconsistency is challenged and corrected. The publication emphasised that it was entitled to use the language it saw fit to characterise the findings and was not bound to terminology approved by public bodies; the term "wrong" was a fair summation of the research as a whole. Nevertheless, the term "wrong" had also featured in the professor's quote, in which he had made the point that the marking in essay based questions had been "proved wrong on too many occasions".
9. Notwithstanding its position that there was no breach of the Code, the publication offered to publish a letter from Ofqual setting out its position. The publication also offered to publish a clarification in its print and online Corrections and Clarifications column 56 days after IPSO began its investigation. The publication offered the following wording:
"Our report 'Revealed - A-level results are 48% wrong' (News, August 11) stated that two out of five teenagers who sat essay-based subjects at A-level may be awarded the 'wrong' grade. Ofqual argues the word 'wrong' misrepresents the results of their research; that variation in grades is due to the intrinsic subjectivity of marking humanities subjects; and that the true proportion of grades awarded in error is 1.2 %. We are happy to make this clear."
10. The complainant rejected this offer and said that the 1.2% figure was not supplied for this reason and its inclusion in the context of this wording did not correct the inaccuracy.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
12. The research published by Ofqual, which was referenced in the article, found that 52% of grades awarded by examiners in English were definitive, defined in Ofqual’s report as being the same grade as would have been awarded by a senior examiner. It was not significantly misleading to report that 48% of grades could be "wrong", in circumstances where the research indicated that, in 48% of cases, a senior examiner could have awarded a different grade to that awarded by the examiner who had marked the paper. The complainant had accepted that different grades could be awarded as a result of inconsistencies in marking, but disagreed with the characterisation of the research which had been adopted by the publication. However, the Committee found that, in light of the findings about the inconsistencies in marking which had been identified in the research, it was not significantly inaccurate for the publication to characterise the findings of the research in this way. However, whilst the article had presented the term "wrong" in quotation marks, it did not make it sufficiently clear that this was the newspaper's own characterisation of the research, rather than a finding which had been made by Ofqual. The Professor quoted in the article had used the term "wrong" to refer to the marking of essay based subjects, but the quotation had not referred to Ofqual’s research. Prior to publication, the complainant had explained Ofqual's position that it did not accept that the research had found that the reported percentage of grades were "wrong", which provided the publication with an opportunity to ensure that Ofqual's position was not misrepresented; however, the quote provided by Ofqual had not been included in the article. The article had not made clear that grades being “wrong” was the publication’s characterisation and not a finding made by Ofqual; this amounted to a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i) and was significant so as to require a correction to avoid a further breach of Clause 1(ii).
13. The publication offered to publish a clarification and the proposed wording made clear that the term “wrong” was the publication's own characterisation or summation of the research, rather than a finding made by Ofqual. The Committee considered that the publication's offer to publish the wording in the online and print Corrections and Clarifications columns represented a suitably prominent position in which to correct the inaccuracy. However, the clarification was offered 56 days after IPSO began its investigation. Given that the publication had been informed of Ofqual’s position prior to publication, the offer could not be considered prompt; the delay gave rise to a breach of Clause 1(ii).
14. The timing of an article's publication is a matter of editorial discretion and not a Code issue. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii).
Remedial Action Required
16. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.
17. In circumstances where the Committee found that the publication was entitled to characterise the findings of the report in the way reported, but that the article had not made clear that this was its own characterisation rather than a finding made by Ofqual, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction.
18. The proposed wording, although not offered promptly, addressed the inaccuracy and publication in the Corrections and Clarifications columns satisfied the requirement for sufficient prominence. The correction should, therefore, now be published, with the addition that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
Date complaint received: 22/08/2019
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/02/2020Back to ruling listing