The Daily Telegraph’s front page story today carries the lurid headline: Cheating the System: how examiners tip off teachers. Parents and students are right to be worried that some teachers and their students are getting a head start.
Michael Gove has ordered an immediate enquiry but the government must take its fair share of the blame for the current mess because the exam boards are, and always have been, agents of government education policy.
In a statement issued last night (7 Dec 2011), the Education Secretary said: “Our exams system needs fundamental reform. The revelations confirm that the current system is discredited.
“I have asked Glenys Stacey [the chief executive of Ofqual] to investigate the specific concerns identified by the Telegraph, to examine every aspect of the exam boards’ conduct which gives rise to concern and to report back to me within two weeks with her conclusions and recommendations for further action.”
I have been to seminars conducted by Senior Examiners and there is no doubt that they transform teachers’ understanding of how exams and coursework are marked, so any teachers who do not attend such training sessions on a regular basis are in danger of putting their pupils at a significant disdvantage. But I have not encountered the kind of specific abuse cited by the Telegraph in which examiners advise teachers which topics are (or are not) going to turn up on specific exam papers.
The pressure is on examiners to provide “value for money” at such seminars and the more a teacher (or school) has paid, the greater the pressure on the board and the seminar-leader to go a little bit too far in terms of the advice they give. If teachers are paying as much as £230 a day as the Telegraph claims, the pressure is even greater. If such presentations were widely publicised, free, and open to all (not just teachers at registered exam centres), it would help to ensure a level playing field for all concerned. Or the whole concept of such seminars could be scrapped and the exam boards could focus instead on dissiminating the necessary information and guidance through open-access websites rather than in one-to-one or face-to-face situations.
The exam boards will argue, with considerable justification, that such guidance is undoubtedly necessary because of the nature of exam-marking these days. Examiners have no flexibility at all in the marks they can offer, even in “fuzzy” subjects like English literature. There are no marks available for flair, initiative, insight or imagination, nor is wider reading in the subject effectively rewarded. The marks are awarded accoding to narrowly-defined and quasi-objective “assessment objectives”. A student’s chances are entirely linked to their teacher’s understanding of what those AOs are, and how to fulfil them. This is no simple matter, hence the seminar industry which the Telegraph has rightly scrutinised.
Alas, it is unlikely that we can now turn back the tide to a less legalistic age where examiners are trusted to judge the underlying understanding and communication skills of candidates rather than tick a series of boxes. But it will will be interesting to see what the government’s panic-driven enquiry throws up.