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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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