Government calls for 'fundamental reform' of exam system


Secret filming courtesy of the Daily Telegraph

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The government is calling for a reform of the exam system, after inquiries were launched in England and Wales into claims of cheating.

The Telegraph alleges that some teachers were told what questions to expect in GCSE and A-level exams at an exam board seminar.

Two people have been suspended but their exam board - WJEC - insists the claims relate to a misunderstanding.

In new claims, the Telegraph says an examiner boasted an exam was easy.

Education Secretary Michael Gove says the system is "discredited".

And the prime minister's spokesman has said it needs "fundamental reform".

The Daily Telegraph said it had filmed an examiner telling teachers at a seminar which questions to expect.

The exam boards involved are investigating - as are England's exams regulator Ofqual and the Welsh government - which regulates exams taken in Wales.

GCSEs and A-levels are mainly taken by students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Telegraph said it had secretly filmed a chief examiner telling teachers, who had each paid up to £200 to attend the seminar, which questions their pupils could expect in forthcoming exams.

It said the advice appeared to go far beyond standard "guidance".

'We're cheating'


When does helpful advice for students on exams become cheating? That is the question that is at the heart of the outcry about these allegations.

A good teacher will prepare their students well for their exams, studying all areas of the syllabus, showing them what will get them the best marks. They will use their experience to make a calculated guess about what might or might not come up in an exam. All the exam boards hold these seminars to inform teachers about their qualifications and tell them how students did in the previous year's exams. And that is allowed. The allegation here is that some individuals working for the exam boards went too far and said what topics would and would not come up.

The other issue here is the potential conflict between exam boards - as businesses - and the need to maintain exam standards.

Michael Gove is concerned that exam boards might be tempted to offer easier exams to attract schools to them - and thus contribute to a "dumbing down" of standards. Schools want their students to do well and are under league table pressure to do that too. The whole area is now under intense scrutiny.

The newspaper said its undercover reporters went to 13 meetings organised by exam boards used by English schools.

It alleged that teachers were "routinely" given information about future exams, including questions, syllabus areas to focus on and the specific words or facts students must use to win marks.

It quoted a named examiner at a seminar on GCSE history as telling teachers that a compulsory question in the exam "goes through a cycle".

He gives the subjects for the forthcoming exam, adding: "We're cheating, we're telling you the cycle."

When told that this information was not in the course specification, according to the paper, the examiner said: "No, because we're not allowed to tell you."

Mr Gove said he had asked the new chief executive of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, to investigate and report back within two weeks.

He said: "As I have always maintained, it is crucial our exams hold their own with the best in the world. We will take whatever action is necessary to restore faith in our exam system. Nothing is off the table."

Michael Gove: "Exam boards could lose the right to set exams"

Mrs Stacey said: "It's right that awarding bodies provide support and guidance for teachers, it's not right if they're selling privileged access to inside information."

Ofqual says it might consider "pulling" certain exam papers or questions in up-coming exams.

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "We are very clear that our exam system needs fundamental reform.

"The revelations we have seen today show our current system is discredited. We are very clear we will take whatever action is necessary to restore faith in the exam system."

The Welsh exam board - WJEC - said it has suspended two of its history examiners and is investigating the claims.

It said: "Most of the issues raised... relate to an incomplete understanding of the generic advice on teaching approaches given in good faith at professional development sessions with the aim of enhancing students' appreciation of the subjects studied and their assessment."

It added that the courses described in the article were "by no means secretive" as the information was freely available on its public website to ensure teachers and students were not disadvantaged in cases where teachers were unable to attend.

New claims

Another board, Edexcel, said examiners' contracts stated that no discussion of the content of future exams should take place.

"Any breach of this clear contractual obligation is something we would take extremely seriously, and act on. On this basis, we are speaking to those examiners identified... in order to fully understand the context and complete nature of the conversations they had at these events," it said.

The latest allegation from the Telegraph is that an examiner from the Edexcel exam board told its reporters that one of its exams was easy.

A statement from Edexcel said: "We strongly dispute the incorrect assertion made by one of our contracted examiners that Edexcel exams are in any way easier. We are certain that Edexcel exams meet the same standards as those of other awarding bodies.

"In addition we do not actively market our exams as easier and when this has happened in the past, we have acted quickly to tighten up internal controls to ensure it does not happen again."

Profit motive

Teachers and head teachers say both schools and the exam boards are working under "intense pressure".

Start Quote

You wouldn't dream of having, say, different boards offering driving licences”

End Quote Chris McGovern Campaign for Real Education

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers said: "For too long we have judged schools on their ability to exceed crude thresholds of exam passes, but this was only ever a proxy for a great education.

"As today's allegations suggest, passes can be achieved in good ways and bad ways.

"These events remind us that the profit motive sits uncomfortably with the values of education."

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said the system needed to change: "What we need to do is stop having examination boards competing against each other. What we have to do is to have one single examination board.

"You wouldn't dream of having, say, different boards offering driving licences. You've got to have one exam board, like most countries do, so that there's some integrity to the system. Without that, I'm afraid, it's just going to carry on getting worse."

Mr Gove set out his wider concerns about the exams system in a recent letter to Ofqual, which is to look at the issues around what it calls "qualifications markets".

In his letter, dated 29 November, he says: "The chief risk of market failure with qualifications, is in relation to standards - the so-called 'race to the bottom'."

He said there was a risk that competition between exam boards to attract schools to their qualifications might lead to them offering exams which were easier to pass.

And he went on: "We have significant concerns about the links between awarding bodies and the publication of text books.

"This is an area where there can be a tension between what is in the public interest and what would be in an organisation's commercial interest."

There are many text books and study aides on the market linked to particular exam boards' qualifications - often produced by companies linked to them.

Ofqual's research in to this area is due to last 18 months.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Does anyone realise if you teach GCSE in year 10 and 11 you probably have about 152 hours to teach the whole syllabus.Pupils sit 9,10 or 11 GCSEs, so they have to take in all this information for all subjects. No wonder teachers want to focus on syllabus specifics - they have to to get the pupils to pass exams, and how else would they know what they need to study - guidance from the exam boards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Tip of the iceberg. I work in Adult/FE, and this is nothing new: it's happened in some form or other for a long time. What is more worrying is the structure of marking systems geared towards passing as many candidates as possible, regardless of their ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Nothing new here! Education should be a level-playing field based on ability rather than privilege. The fact that some pupils (usually the privileged) get to spoon-fed makes mockery of meritocracy. These practices cannot disappear whatever checks and bounds are in place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    This is nothing new. We used to question spot for all exams. Many owe their success to it. WE did not need to be shown how to do it. WE could work out what was coming up by looking at previous exam papers. WE were hardly ever wrong. So it was possible to get a top grade with only a handful of answers prepared. Then again we were so much brighter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    No wonder we get record GCSE and GCE results year after year ,yet employers reckon many of our school and college leavers with qualifications are unemployable


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