Education Secretary Michael Gove has ordered an inquiry after The Daily Telegraph claimed it had filmed an examiner telling teachers at a seminar which questions to expect in GCSE and A-level examinations.
Ofqual in England and WJEC in Wales will carry out investigations. The Welsh exam board has suspended two people, but insists the claims relate to a misunderstanding of advice
Michael Gove has issued a statement but, as with his prejudgement of the outcome of the National curriculum Review, he already seems to have made up his mind on the outcome, like a judge finding the defendant guilty before the start of the trial:
"Our exams system needs fundamental reform. The revelations confirm that the current system is discredited.
"I have asked Glenys Stacey [the chief executive of Ofqual] to investigate the specific concerns identified by the Telegraph, to examine every aspect of the exam boards' conduct which gives rise to concern and to report back to me within two weeks with her conclusions and recommendations for further action.
"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."
Voice would not disagree that the "exams system needs fundamental reform", for a variety of reasons, but how can Mr Gove claim that "the revelations confirm that the current system" by implication the whole system is "discredited"? It is for the inquiries to decide the extent of any corrupt practices and "report back" with "conclusions and recommendations for further action".
If Mr Gove believes that "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," why did he undermine that faith and discredit the system by describing it as "discredited" before proper investigations have taken place?
The Welsh Government spokesperson was less judgemental:
“Together with the regulators in England and Northern Ireland we are commencing an investigation into these allegations. The regulators are meeting with the awarding organisations concerned today to get a fuller picture of what has happened and will then take any appropriate action promptly and consistently across the three countries. If there is evidence of malpractice, the regulators will work together to take action. Such action, if necessary, would form part of our normal regulatory activity."
Geoff Lucas, former assistant chief executive of the exam regulator QCA, told The Daily Telegraph that "teachers are the losers", but the real losers are the students who sit the exams and who, yet again, face their hard work being undermined by the media.
Also prejudging the inquiry, The Daily Telegraph claims that:
"The disclosures will add to growing fears over the apparent 'dumbing down' of standards in British schools which has led to grade inflation in exams over the past decade."
This is another example of politically-motivated undermining of students' achievements and of qualifications that are "widely respected and regarded throughout the world".
Mick Waters, Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University, rightly points out elsewhere in The Daily Telegraph:
"There is the perennial worry about whether exams are getting easier as more youngsters succeed. After 23 years of a continuing increase in performance we ought to congratulate our teenagers and thank our teachers more than we do."
Standards are rising but every years we have to go through the annual ritual of the media and associated pundits doing down the A level and GCSE results. Whatever the results, it seems there will always be those who delight in undermining students' achievements.
At the same time there is pressure on schools and pupils for even more students to achieve a particular number of exam passes. As we've pointed out before, do you lower standards, devaluing the qualification, or perform some miraculous transformation in pupil performance?
However, while exams are not getting easier as the media claim, the assessment system does need to be reformed, with fewer exams and tests and greater use of ongoing teacher assessment, a greater range and type of subjects on offer to inspire pupils, parity between vocational and academic and an end to the constraints of the narrow and pointless EBacc.
The current system of exam-based 'accountability' encourages teaching to the test rather than the teaching of a broad and balanced education. It is for the benefit of the government, rather than for providing information for parents and taxpayers, and teachers' professional judgment would provide a better and more cost-effective measure of pupils' progress.
We need to ask ourselves how do we allow teachers to be creative and inspirational in a politically-enforced regime that encourages teaching to the test and ticking targets?
A new survey, commissioned by the British Council and Think Global charity found that 74% of these business representatives warned that in the UK young people’s “horizons are not broad enough” for a globalised economy:
"Business leaders suggested that this could be because schools were too worried about exam results and league tables to encourage pupils to learn 'about the wider world beyond the school gates and beyond our shores'."
As journalist Warwick Mansell asks on Twitter:
"Results-are-everything culture imposed on schools, with big rewards for winners, big penalties for losers, is inherently corrupting. Discuss."
Professor Waters raises some interesting points about how to restore confidence:
"But an industry has built up behind the exams. The awarding bodies are in competition to attract custom."
"If we have to have these exams, do they have to take place as harvest every summer?
"Could the syllabus for a subject be made available just 50 days before the exam, so that the big ideas would have to be understood in order to be revised at that point?
"Or maybe we could publish the 150 possible exam questions two years ahead of the exams and generate the actual paper on the day.
"Practice such as this would ensure breadth and depth in study rather than exam practice. We might end up with real scientists, historians, geographers, designers and linguists, rather than people who pass exams so that they can drop the subject immediately.
"While we have a system that fuels these vicious circles, we are bound to have nagging doubts.
"Should we look again properly at exams or should we simply wait for hindsight?"
Do let us know your thoughts.