Exam markers have been accused of being “politically correct”, as figures show as the number of pupils penalised for “offensive” material has doubled in a year.
This year, 450 students were disciplined for including “inappropriate, offensive or obscene material” in their GCSEs or A-level exam scripts or coursework, up from 225 in 2018.
The exam board AQA handed out the majority of penalties for this particular breach, with 310 pupils issued with warnings, marked down or disqualified, according to new data published by the exam watchdog Ofqual.
Pearson issued 80 penalties, while OCR handed out 60. It comes amid concern that the capability of examiners has fallen in recent years, with many left unable to tell the difference between intelligent and “inappropriate” answers.
Chris McGovern, a former Government advisor and the director of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “The intellectual quality of the examiners has plummeted in recent decades.
“We don’t have the subject expertise among examiners that we once used to have. They now rely on a rigid mark scheme and any child who steps outside a mark scheme, certainly in a non-politically correct way, is likely to be penalised.”
Mr McGovern added: “We are really talking here about inadequacy among examiners. Quite frankly, some are just too thick to understand that bright children sometimes give less orthodox responses. It’s a good thing if children are answering intelligently, even if it does at times break the PC rules.”
Earlier this year, The Telegraph revealed that a GCSE student had been disqualified for “obscene racial comments” after an examiner mistook her vegetarianism for Islamophobia.
Abigail Ward, a 16-year-old pupil at Gildredge House school in Eastbourne, East Sussex, was penalised for her observations about halal meat during a Religious Studies exam in June.
She was informed by exam board OCR she had committed a “malpractice offence” and would be disqualified from the qualification “due to obscene racial comments being made throughout an exam paper”.
But the disqualification was overturned when it transpired Miss Ward, a strict vegetarian, was simply expressing her distaste for halal butchers.
Appealing OCR’s decision, Gildredge School wrote to the exam board, saying her comment “…which I find absolutely disgusting” related to her being a vegetarian and finding halal butchers disgusting.
The school explained the reference was not made in relation to Muslims, and that there were no other comments in the paper that could be construed as racist.
Upholding the appeal, the exam board apologised for the “upset and stress” and accepted their original claim about the “frequency and severity of the comments” was inaccurate.
Abigail’s mother, Layla Ward, a 36-year-old nurse, said she believed the examiner had been “over-zealous” and “over-righteous”.
At the time, OCR said it “takes all incidences of suspected offensive material against a religious group in exams very seriously and must apply rules which are set out for all exam boards in such cases”.
A spokesman acknowledged that in the case of Miss Ward, “initially we did not reach the right conclusion and were too harsh”.
A total of 3,040 penalties were issued to GCSE, AS, and A-level students who sat their exams this summer, up 11 per cent from last year.
The largest number of penalties were issued for use of mobile phones or other electronic devices in exams, with 1,385 punishments handed out for this, representing 46 per cent of all malpractice incidents.
Separate figures released on Friday showed that the number of A-level grades that were changed on appeal is up by 11 per cent on last year.
This year, 13,070 grades were changed at A-level after appeal, up from 12,140 in 2018. Meanwhile, 56,680 GCSE grades were changed after appeal this year, down from 57,100 last year.