A huge scandal has erupted in Britain over cheating on secondary school exams – not by students, and not by teachers or schools as has occurred everywhere that school results and league tables are published. This time the cheating is by those who set the exam questions and mark the results – the examination boards.
The scandal has brought the whole secondary exam system and reporting of school results in England and Wales into disrepute. Perverse incentives and pressures created by reporting school results are leading to easier exams and grade inflation, especially under the bizarre system of different exam boards competing with each other to provide courses and run exams for schools. Schools play the system to improve their league table ranking.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper revealed the scandal after sending its reporters under cover to attend seminars for teachers with chief examiners from the exam boards. They found that teachers were routinely given information about future questions, areas of the syllabus that would be assessed and specific words or facts students must use to answer in questions to gain higher marks.
One history chief examiner was secretly filmed telling teachers which questions their students could expect in the next round of exams. “We’re cheating,” he says. “We’re telling you the cycle [of the compulsory question].”
He advised teachers how to “hammer exam technique” rather than “teach the lot” as the approach of “proper educationalists”.
The chief examiner for geography at another exam board told an undercover reporter that teachers should pick her company’s exam because “you don’t have to teach a lot” and that there is a “lot less” for students to learn than with rival courses. The course has so little content that the examiner admitted she cannot believe it was approved by the Government’s official regulator.
Yes, in fact there’s so little we don’t know how we got it through [the exam regulators]. And I’m deadly serious about that. When I looked at it I thought, ‘how is this ever going to get through?’….It’s a lot less, it’s a lot smaller, and that’s why a lot of people came to us.
Another official from the same exam board boasted to an undercover reporter about the ease of the board’s coursework in English: “So weak kids, you can get them through on anything really. Frankly.”
Unusually, England and Wales have several exam boards, with schools and colleges able to freely choose between them on a subject-by-subject basis. There are three main exam boards offering General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams taken at the end of Year 11, A-level exams taken in Year 12 and various vocational qualifications. These are the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR) and Edexcel. In recent years, the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) has become more popular.
These boards are run as commercial businesses and they compete with one another to win “business” from schools in running their GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications. Edexcel is the only one run as a for-profit company.
Over the past two months, Daily Telegraph reporters attended 13 seminars run by the boards for up to 100 teachers. They attended training days for GCSE and A-level exams, covering subjects ranging from English to maths and French to science. Schools paid up to £200 per teacher to attend crash courses on next year’s exams.
At a WJEC course in London for GCSE history in November, teachers were told by one of the chief examiners of the course, what the compulsory question in the exam would be on. A colleague also disclosed specific information about other questions:
We had an email some weeks ago – er, how much depth should I do on Clinton and Bush? And the advice is none. OK? I will never, I can’t, there will never be a specific question.
WJEC literature on its website also appears to advise teachers that they need not teach the full syllabus and points out which sections will be examined each year.
Another undercover reporter attended the AQA GCSE English seminar in Brighton. Teachers were told by the subject manager for English that students could study only three out of 15 poems, even though the Qualification and Curriculum Authority says it should be 15.
Right, poems, in an hour and twenty minutes, you wouldn’t want to go more than two or three. If it was a Browning monologue, one. That would be quite nice to use the anthology. And if you did, you wouldn’t need to read the whole cluster. 15 aren’t there? You wouldn’t need to read them all.
He went on to warn teachers that the chief examiner had said “candidates need specific coaching and practice … for each of the questions on the paper”.
The chief examiner for Edexcel in geography gave teachers guidance on what questions students were likely to find in examinations.
Okay, the first question talks about orientating photographs. I like this sort of question, I’m telling you it will keep coming up, okay. It will keep coming up, and it will usually be the first one.
Several examiners from different boards advised teachers on what words or phrases students should use in answering questions to gain higher marks.
In response to the revelations, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, immediately ordered an urgent inquiry from Ofqual, the exam regulator, which will report back before Christmas. He said:
Our exams system needs fundamental reform. The revelations confirm that the current system is discredited.
The Daily Telegraph initiated its investigation in response to growing concerns about grade inflation in exams over the past decade and mounting evidence that the system was vulnerable to manipulation. It had received tip-offs that boards were becoming increasingly commercial and competing for business from schools. Online message forums were full of teachers saying how they thought that some exam boards were “easier” than others, but it was a claim that had always been denied by officials keen to maintain that exams were as rigorous as ever.
Exams are big business in England and Wales. Spending on exam fees has almost doubled in seven years, from £154 million in 2002-03 to £302.6 million in 2009-10.
The increasing commercialisation of exams has coincided with a sharp rise in the number of students achieving top grades. Exam marks have reached new records during each of the past 23 years as the system has become increasingly commercialised. Every year the results at these levels get better.
There is a potential conflict of interest between exam boards as businesses and the need to maintain exam standards. By helping teachers obtain the highest grades, the boards make higher revenues as their tests become more popular.
On the other hand, schools are under pressure from league tables to get good results. The temptation is for them to go to a board which offers an easier exam. Critics claim that schools play the system to climb league tables.
One teacher at an Edexcel seminar told an undercover Telegraph reporter that her school used to be with OCR, but “about four years ago, three years ago, the pass [score required] for C [grades] went from 53 to 63 per cent”, so her school changed to Edexcel. She said that the advantage of the board was clear for her students:
The reading age required for all of the papers on Edexcel, is much, much lower than the reading age required for paper two OCR. If you don’t have a reading age of 16 you might as well forget it.
John Bangs, a former senior official at the National Union of Teachers who is now a visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, said exam boards and schools are under “enormous pressure” to deliver good results. It’s a “very, very high-stakes system”, he told the BBC.
It’s high stakes in terms of commercialism and it’s high stakes in terms of getting the results for schools and examiners are under enormous pressure to do that.
This was confirmed by the chief maths examiner for OCR who told an undercover Daily Telegraph reporter:
With the present day huge emphasis that there is on league tables, if something is a per cent easier, if your candidates can get a couple of per cent more As to Cs, that makes a difference. If your perception is that by going with one awarding body then you can achieve that rather than another one, that’s what people choose to do.
There are widespread concerns that the commercial activities of the boards are reducing the standards and integrity of qualifications. Chris McGovern, a former head teacher and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, claimed exam boards were competing to make tests easier to maximise their business.
The thing is wide open to corruption. The problem is you have four exam boards [in England and Wales] which are actually competing to be easier. The easier they are the more candidates they get.
In October, Gove warned exam boards against dropping standards in order to secure a bigger share of the market:
It’s important that collectively we recognise that exam boards and awarding bodies, in the natural and healthy desire to be the best as an exam board, don’t succumb to the commercial temptation to elbow others out of the way, by saying to schools and to others “we provide an easier route to more passes than others.
In correspondence with Ofqual at the end of November he said:
In our view the chief risk of market failure with qualifications, is in relation to standards – the so-called ‘race to the bottom’.
The nature of competition seems to present significant risks of awarding bodies producing more ‘accessible’ specifications, with content which is less intrinsically challenging, in order to capture market share.
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.
Ofqual recently launched an inquiry into the role of market forces in the exam industry, the risk of downward pressure on standards of qualifications and whether they may lead to too many qualifications being marketed.
It will also look at potential conflicts of interest for the boards in the provision of qualifications, in particular, the provision of study aids, text books and training sessions. Text books and study aides are produced linked to the qualifications provided by specific exam boards and are often published by companies associated with the boards.
There are calls for a single examination board to remove the incentive for competition to reduce standards. Chris McGovern 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.
However, this is only part of the problem. Central to the issue also is the perverse incentives created by competition for league table rankings. The responses to the Daily Telegraph revelations produced a spate of other claims about manipulation of exam results.
It was claimed that schools are being turned into “exam factories” as staff are forced to go to extreme lengths to maximise pupils’ results. Some teachers took to online message boards to tell how they had been encouraged to cheat for years, including writing children’s coursework. One claimed that teachers regularly submitted identical coursework for moderation by one exam board that staff wrote themselves.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it was common for schools to focus on “borderline” pupils – those on the cusp of achieving a good C grade GCSE – to inflate their headline results.
Unfortunately, the higher the stakes and the simpler the measures, the greater the temptation.
As long as the system is managed on crude data and cruder incentives, these risks will be rife: market forces crowd out ethics, and league tables crowd out judgement.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the Telegraph’s investigation was “a consequence of a system that places too high a premium on exam results and league tables and not enough on actual learning and helping young people get on”.
It is yet another failed experiment in creating markets in education. Competition between education providers, in this case exam boards, has lead to declining standards and illusory gains in exam results.