Examiners caught "cheating" by telling teachers which questions to expect

An investigation by the <em>Telegraph</em> lays bare the problem of exam boards competing for busine

The so-called dumbing down of school standards has been a source of hand-wringing for years, if not decades. But now it appears there is evidence that the current system is flawed.

An investigation by the Daily Telegraph has uncovered that teachers are paying up to £230 a day to attend seminars with chief examiners where they are told which questions will come up and the exact wording that pupils should use to gain marks.

At a seminar on GCSE History run by WJEC, the Welsh exam board, an examiner is secretly recorded apparently telling teachers:

This coming summer, and there's a slide on this later on, it's going to be the middle bit: life in Germany '33-'39; or, for America, it will be rise and fall of the American economy. And then the other two questions will be in section B.

He adds that he is telling them how to "hammer exam technique", as opposed to the approach of "proper educationalists", and told teachers that "we're not allowed to tell you" this information. "We're cheating, we're telling you the cycle," he is alleged to have said.

According to the Telegraph, an AQA English seminar told teachers that students could study just three out of 15 poems for an exam. An Edexcel Geography seminar also gave guidance on which questions to expect.

The exam boards have defended their exams, but promised to investigate whether rules had been broken. A spokesman for WJEC said:

The examiner at the training course attended by a Telegraph reporter was confirming long-standing guidance on this subject. The alleged use of the word 'cheating' appears to have been injudicious, as well as inaccurate; we shall investigate this further.

Edexcel said:

Examiners' contracts specifically state that no discussion of the content of future exam questions should ever take place. Any breach of this clear contractual obligation is something we would take extremely seriously and act on.

The "exam industry" grew sharply under Labour. While competition between exam boards was supposed to encourage innovation, offer greater choice, and help to improve levels of service to schools, in practice, competing for "business" from schools has meant the pursuit of the lowest common denominator to make exams more appealing. It's actually a point that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, raised in October, saying:

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.

Solutions are less obvious. A union survey last year found that 51 per cent of teachers supported the creation of a single exam board, while just a quarter endorsed the current system. But at a time when education policy is defined by competition, with the introduction of free schools and rapid expansion of the academies programme, it is difficult to envisage the creation of a centralised body.

Gove has asked Ofqual, the exam regulator, to launch an urgent investigation into these allegations. It will 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.

The priority must be in implementing measures to reverse the nonsensical incentives for "cheating", and to ensure that no students are going into the exam room knowing what the questions will be.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.