As two examiners are suspended after accusations that they advised teachers on the content of exam papers, one headteacher tells Channel 4 News it is the sign of a commercialised system.
Paul Evans and Paul Barnes, both of whom work for the Welsh exam board WJEC, were named in an investigation that alleged senior examiners were giving detailed information about what topics will come up in exams.
Undercover filming [see video below] of a seminar that teachers paid hundreds of pounds to attend, appear to show Mr Evans telling teachers that a compulsory question in a certain exam goes through a cycle. He is alleged to have told attendees: “We’re cheating”.
“We’re telling you the cycle (of the compulsory question). Probably the regulator will tell us off.”
Exam boards might be ordered to change exam papers if there is clear evidence that teachers have been tipped off.
Undercover reporters for the paper attended 13 meetings organised by exam boards and found that teachers were routinely given information about future questions, specific phrases which would improve marks and areas of the syllabus that would be assessed.
At one seminar, English teachers were told that students could study three poems instead of the 15 specified in the syllabus.
In a statement, WJEC said it is taking the Telegraph’s allegations “very seriously indeed” and is “investigating the circumstances revealed by their undercover reporter as a matter of urgency”.
“The information given at the courses, including detailed examiners’ reports on the previous year’s assessment, is freely available on the website for all teachers, whether or not they are able to attend courses.”
There has always been a sense that there is an advantage afforded to attending the seminars. Teachers come back with ideas, hints and tips which they can then share with the teaching team and with pupils. Fiona Hammans, Executive Head Banbury School
Mr Gove has asked Glenys Stacey, chief executive of the exam regulator Ofqual, to investigate the specific concerns identified by the Telegraph.
“As I have always maintained, it is crucial our exams hold their own with the best in the world,” he said. “We will take whatever action is necessary to restore faith in our exam system. Nothing is off the table.”
Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg called the allegations “extremely serious” adding that the Ofqual investigation “must leave no stone unturned.”
Video from the Daily Telegraph showing the WJEC’s Paul Evans and Paul Barnes leading history seminars.
Teachers pay between £120 and £230 a day for seminars run by senior examiners of England’s three main exam boards, OCR, AQA and Edexcel, and the Welsh exam board WJEC which is being used increasingly in England.
An government investigation will decide whether the examiners captured on camera were cheating, and whether the practice is widespread.
An expectation seems to have emerged that exam boards justify the money. “There has always been a sense that there is an advantage afforded to attending the seminars. Teachers come back with ideas, hints and tips which they can then share with the teaching team and with pupils,” Fiona Hammans, executive head at Banbury School, Oxfordshire told Channel 4 News.
Teachers are also under pressure to get high grades for their students. “I hadn’t thought about it as cheating,” adds Dr Hammans. “Students will be disadvantaged if you don’t go on these courses.”
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. Education Secretary Michael Gove
Edexcel, one of England’s main exam boards, acknowledged that it runs “feedback events” for teachers which look back at the previous year’s exams.
But in a statement said that 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.”
However teachers have also hit out at the increasingly high costs demanded by exam boards. Dr Hammans said that she paid £170,000 for exam fees, plus additional costs for exam officers, training and seminars.
“My anger is that there is no choice for schools. It feels like we’re being mined for money. Why do schools have to pay so much for just a GCSE or A level exam? Schools feel that there’s no choice – there’s nowhere else to go,” she told Channel 4 News.
Edexcel defended its fees in a statement to Channel 4 News: “Edexcel’s examination fees have risen below the rate of inflation over the last five years. However, the volume of exams taken has increased substantially as more people stay in education for longer. As a result overall spend on examinations has risen in recent years.”
In October, Mr Gove warned that competition between exam boards to secure a bigger share of the market put overall standards at risk.
John Bangs, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Education and former NUT senior has renewed calls for one single exam board.
“Market and exam pressures are making examiners sell their wares,” he told the BBC on Thursday morning. “The exam board has to show that it’s successful and achieves the results. It’s very high stakes in terms of commercialism.”
Exam boards are essentially selling a product, Dr Hammans told Channel 4 News. “They want to sell something to more schools so that they get more money. An exam board offers an exam that is ‘easier’ for school to get lots of exams. But what it does is devalue education.”
In response to the allegations, an Ofqual spokesman said that this is an issue of “significant interest” to the board.
“We have introduced new regulations to tighten up the requirements awarding organisations must meet to make sure their commercial activities do not impact on the standards and integrity of qualifications. Failure to meet these standards will result in regulatory action.”