'Sleight of hand' used to push up grades claims expert

By Adrian Goldberg
Presenter, 5 live Investigates

Image caption,
There are concerns standards are being watered down by allowing students to do repeated re-sits.

"If you are a head teacher you'd want to get the best results you could and so you seek out the best awarding body offering the best way forward.

"The awarding bodies know that and so they make it possible for everybody to succeed.

"So everybody is pushing at the edges of the rules. It's the professional foul really, it's the sleight of hand - everybody is testing the tolerance to the limit."

This is the view of Professor Mick Waters, a former director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - the body responsible for overseeing educational standards in England, until it was dissolved earlier this year.

Speaking to 5 live Investigates he also claims that the new exam regulator for England, The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) is a "toothless" watchdog, incapable of dealing with the problem.

Professor Waters' comments have been strongly denied by Ofqual, but they are likely to inflame the ongoing row over academic standards and specifically the publication of league tables, which have been the subject of controversy ever since they were introduced in 1992.

'Get sacked'

When Tony Blair's Labour government assumed control in 1997, they ordered the introduction of "value added" tables, designed to give a fairer reflection of a school's quality by taking into account its catchment area and the previous educational attainment of its pupils.

Even so, the gold standard has remained the achievement of five GCSEs grade A to C, leading to suggestions that too many schools simply "teach to the test" in order to survive.

One history teacher who spoke anonymously to 5 live Investigates said that the pressure on teachers to hit minimum pass grades was almost intolerable.

He said: "We have lots of pressures in terms of league tables and Ofsted [the schools' inspector] all pushing us to achieve grades - and if we don't, you can find yourself losing your job. If results don't improve you get sacked.

"I know good teachers whose lives have been destroyed by the current system, who have lost their jobs - people crash and burn."

The teacher explained that when he took over as head of department, he asked colleagues how he could improve on a relatively low pass rate of 27%, and was told to simply change exam boards.

'Maximise chances'

Within two years he says the pass rate at his school more than doubled despite the fact that the social class of pupils and the teaching methods employed in the school had scarcely changed.

Image caption,
The exam regulator Ofqual says it works to ensure exams are fair and consistent.

He said: "For me it took the pressure off, and in terms of student grades it went from 27% to 63% over a two year period. We had the same teachers using the same resources so not much changed - except the exam board."

This teacher, speaking anonymously, also suggested that they are "tipped the wink" by some exam boards so that they know which subjects to expect - allowing them to coach their students accordingly.

Ian McNeilly, Director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, echoed these concerns, and warned that standards are also being watered down by allowing pupils to keep resitting key exam modules to improve grades.

"The practice might be to sit a module three times in order to maximise their chance of a high grade - and in the world we live in, why wouldn't a teacher do that?" he asked.

"It's all within the rules, they are playing the system. The pressure is for those teachers to achieve the best results for their students. They are doing the best they can. If that involves using an examination board that they think will be more 'accessible', then so be it. Why wouldn't they?"

No evidence

There are five exam boards available to schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - Scotland has a separate education system.

The examination boards say there is absolutely no evidence that one board's qualifications are easier than others. If that were true, they say, they would expect to see a large number of schools move from one exam board to one which is supposedly easier - evidence which, they insist, does not exist.

However, the government has promised to reform the current system, and a white paper will be published later this month.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said recently: "As well as reforming exams to make them more rigorous, we need to change league tables to make them more effective.

"One thing I'm determined to do is publish all the exam data held by the government so that parents, schools and third parties can use web-based applications to create many new and bespoke sorts of tables.

"This will mean they're not dependent on the measures that government decides to use; and also that there is complete transparency about the qualifications our young people are taking."

'System being tested'

For Professor Mick Waters change cannot come quickly enough and he believes that the exams regulator Ofqual needs to be beefed up.

Image caption,
Education secretary Michael Gove has said he wants to make exams more rigorous.

He said: "I think [Ofqual] is toothless in putting in the safeguards that stop the tolerance in the system being tested to the limit. They are unable to call to account the awarding bodies and their tactics, along with the tactics of the schools.

"Ofqual don't regulate if the tactics played are testing the tolerance of the system. Ofqual should work to ensure all aspects of the system are monitored and reliable."

A spokesman for Ofqual, which regulates the examination system in England, denied the allegations.

He said: "It is our role to ensure examinations are fair and consistent and we are fully prepared to ask difficult questions about the qualifications we regulate. Where we find shortcomings we report publicly on them without fear or favour."

You can hear the full report on 5 live Investigates on Sunday, 7 November at 2100 GMT on BBC Radio 5 live.

You can also listen again on the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the 5 live Investigates podcast.

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