The pressure builds on Gove to act over the GCSE scandal

Exam regulator Ofqual ordered exam board Edexcel to move GCSE English grade boundaries.

The revelation that the exam regulator Ofqual, contrary to its previous insistences, ordered exam board Edexcel to alter its GCSE English grades boundaries just two weeks before results were published has intensified the controversy around the papers. Until now, Ofqual has maintained that exam boards set June's grade boundaries (which were harsher than those used in January) "using their best professional judgement". But, thanks to the leaked letters obtained by the Times Educational Supplement, we now know that it ordered at least one to adopt new boundaries in order to bring down the number of C grades awarded. Glenys Stacey, Ofqual's chief regulator, will answer questions from MPs on the education select committee at 9:30am this morning, with Michael Gove due to appear tomorrow.

And it's Gove that Labour is concentrating its fire on this morning, urging him to order an independent inquiry into the affair. The unspoken suspicion is that the Education Secretary leant on Ofqual to intervene. In a letter to Gove before the results were published, the regulator warned that a crackdown on "grade inflation" would make it "harder for any genuine increases in the performance of students to be fully reflected in the results."

Meanwhile, the decision of Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews to order Welsh pupils' papers to be regraded has made Gove's refusal to act all the more conspicuous. Gove has previously argued that the fiasco simply reinforces "the case for reform" - modules and units should be scrapped and GCSEs replaced with new O-level style exams. But that will be of little to comfort to those English pupils who saw their papers marked more harshly than those sat in January. Until the Education Secretary acts to correct this injustice, he will rightly be accused of complacency.

Education Secretary Michael Gove arrives at the Leveson inquiry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.