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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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