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.
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.