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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Called into Question: the School Examination System

Called into Question: the School Examination System

First published on 8 December 2011 on Suite 101, this article opened with: ‘Another day, another scandal. Journalists open the amazed eyes of British voters, taxpayers and students to exams abuse and now ‘something must be done!” In the past year several things have started to /be done’ and more will follow. It is timely to republish it here.

After years of controversy about exam grade inflation and ‘dumbing down’, where results in both GCSE and A level exams improve year on year, in December 2011 the Daily Telegraph exposed what it calls: ‘Cheating the system, how examiners tip off teachers’.

The main thrust of the expose was that courses and seminars run by chief and senior examiners for teachers during the year at a cost of £120 to £230 a day, are opportunities to coach, guide, suggest and even reveal the area of questions that will be coming up.

A group of Telegraph reporters including Holly Wyatt, Claire Newell, Robert Winnett and Graeme Paton said journalists had attended a series of such training sessions undercover. They believed as a result that teachers are encouraged to undermine the specification and ‘teach to the exam’.

If a given number of poems or geographical areas of study were laid down in the syllabus, for example, teachers were advised to focus on only a few, with the very strong hint that those were the next for questions to be set. Two examiners were suspended as a result of the report that same day.

Big Business

There is no doubt that in the past few years, examinations have become big business. The larger secondary schools can each be obliged to spend over £300,000 (that’s over £300 million across the UK) on exam entries and materials, as well as employing full time examination officers and temporary invigilators.

The trend of the past few years towards modular exams means that students from Year 9 (14 yrs) onwards can be in a cycle of exam entries and sittings. Resittings of separate units have become a way of life in schools, as competition to get into universities increases and many employers demand higher standards.

There is equally no doubt of the pressure schools are under to achieve results and climb the league tables. Exam results are one of the criteria (sticks) that Ofsted looks for to assess (beat) schools in their inspections.

In a commentary in the Telegraph, Mick Waters, Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University said that a typical Y11 student (16yrs) has about £500 spent on him/her for exams. He said that ‘to attract the custom, awarding bodies need to make their product accessible’.

Course books to guide the teacher and student through the syllabus are all very well, but he said they ‘risk spoon-feeding’ candidates. Waters raised a number of questions to further the debate: do we have to have exams every summer (though there are winter exams too)?

He asked: why not release the syllabus just a term in advance, so students learn ‘big ideas’ before exam techniques? Why not publish all possible questions two years in advance and then generate the actual questions on the day?

Who are the Exam Boards?

The present awarding arrangements in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are historical hangovers. OCR is the merged Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts bodies, part of Cambridge University and with a turnover of over £125 million a year. AQA, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance is the largest English board, a merger of many old boards, which assesses nearly 4 million candidates a year.

What has become Edexcel (educational excellence) is now owned by Pearson and manages 8 million exam scripts in 85 countries. WJEC is the Welsh board started as a consortium of local education authorities and is now a charity; its specifications are growing in popularity in England.

Northern Ireland has CCEA (Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment) which also advises government on what should be taught in Ulster’s schools. Scotland has its own arrangements, which are not part of the current controversy.

Part of the debate centres on the sometimes ‘cosy relationship’ or ‘unholy alliances’ that exam bodies enjoy with some publishers. They ‘partner’ with exam boards to produce text books and materials, usually written by the chief examiners, and certainly endorsed by them. The Telegraph said that ‘after AQA agreed a deal with Nelson Thornes in 2005, the publisher’s turnover jumped £6 million’.

So, What is the Answer?

Education Secretary Michael Gove demanded an ‘official Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Exam Regulations) enquiry into the exam system’ before Christmas. Commercial activities impacting on standards and integrity of qualifications need longer study, so that is not the answer.

Abolishing all training and guidance is certainly not the answer either. Candidates, schools and parents can buy back their question papers, and rightly so. It is a good way to learn, as individual scripts are marked with comments about knowledge and understanding, relevance to the question, quality of language and subject specific points.

Old question papers, old mark schemes and marked but anonymised previous answers (exemplars) are freely available on the internet for candidates and teachers to learn from. The majority of training courses run by exam boards (and they say they do not charge schools who cannot afford to send staff) offer valuable training to teachers by subject experts.

Who better to teach teachers than a senior examiner? What better way to make improvements than for a teacher to see a paper done by somebody who secured an A grade, or an E? What’s more efficient to introduce teachers to the opportunities for teaching/examining brought by new technology, like onscreen marking, than a day’s training?

While lauding both press freedom in general and the Telegraph in particular for another journalistic scoop, in the same vein as their 2008 lifting the lid on the expense claims abuses carried out by Members of Parliament, this one should not obscure the good work done by most examiners.

Of course things always need tightening, abuses squashed and cheats at every level removed. An enquiry and a debate is timely and the least Britain should expect.

However, codes of practice are rigorous, systems of accountability, checks and rechecks are robust now, and the overwhelming majority of assessors and examiners are committed, honest, caring professionals. We mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath-water.


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