The new Ofqual report suggests league tables are corrupting teachers

Francis Gilbert's picture
The headline news this morning is that Ofqual, the exam regulator, believes that grade boundaries for English GCSE had to be changed because many teachers were being over-generous in their marking. This will no doubt lead to a very familiar round of teacher-bashing, with sloppy English teachers -- many right-wing commentators ultimate bete noir -- being blamed for a decline in morals, standards, GDP, crime on the streets etc...

However, look behind what Glenys Stacey, the chief regulator for Ofqual, says and you see that there's a more complex story emerging. "It is very hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe there is widespread loss of integrity elsewhere," Ms Stacey said. Ofqual had spoken to teachers who said they believed that "teachers elsewhere were abusing the system", she added. "No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, their school and their career on the other."

Yes. I would certainly agree with these last comments, although I would have to say that it's a bit rich to accuse teachers of cheating when we were just following mark schemes provided to us by the exam boards -- mark schemes approved by Ofqual! We have always, in every examiner's meeting I've attended, been encouraged to mark positively; to see where a pupil is going right rather than wrong. I think this exhortation to mark positively is now a thing of the past, and it's clear that we have to mark more negatively -- this is undoubtedly due to political pressure in my view. You only have to look at the Education Secretary's statements over the last few years to see that he feels the system is "dumbed down", that there a "race to the bottom" and that we need to "fix" this situation. He doesn't have to directly influence Ofqual and the exam boards at all for them to get the message that "grade inflation" needs to end: he's been trumpeting this message to the rooftops! Furthermore, he has them all very frightened. Look what happened to the quango that he didn't like, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, QCDA; it was shut down. Gove wields tremendous power over these bodies -- and he, and they, know this. No wonder they're all falling over themselves to keep him happy; their careers and livelihoods are at stake.

Nevertheless, I detect a sceptical note in Ofqual's report. Behind the sound-byte that Ofqual knew the media would go for, is the more subversive observation that the league tables are corrupting all of us -- and, by implication, not raising standards. As Stacey points out, teachers are in an impossible situation of trying to keep their school happy, some of which are threatened with closure if they don't meet certain benchmarks, or maintaining their integrity. Yes, this has led to "over-teaching" in my view -- but this has been, until now, sanctioned by the powers-that-be. And I can't see it changing either with the new Gove levels. Teachers will merely be forced to drill their children to pass three hour exams. At least with coursework, pupils have the chance to do their own research and develop some independent learning skills. As Patricia Broadfoot and Warwick Mansell have pointed out a system which is based on exams just doesn't deliver a quality education. That said, a system which has coursework but also has school league tables and the draconian inspection regime we have, doesn't deliver either; it leads to "cover-ups", "cock-ups", and superficial learning.

Instead of involving teachers in a constructive dialogue about all of this, the government has chosen to be very antagonistic, blaming teachers all along the way. As Pasi Sahlberg, an expert on the Finnish system, points out we have a GERM, (Global Education Reform Movement) which is infecting our schools systems today, which rob teachers of genuine autonomy, focus relentlessly upon ineffective testing systems, league tables, and punitive inspection regimes. Our teachers and pupils are currently victims of GERM, as Glenys Stacey's report actually shows, when you look behind the grandstanding. It's led to a narrowing of the curriculum and a killing off of the creativity in England, as a recent article by Henry Stewart on this site shows.

As a first step, the government needs to disband GCSEs and have a proper conversation with the teaching profession about instituting a meaningful high-school diploma.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 02/11/2012 - 11:32

The report said that schools suspected other schools of over-marking to boost results. This suspicion may or may not be justified but it augurs badly for co-operation between schools. Schools will not co-operate when they believe neighbouring schools are artificially inflating their controlled assessment results in order to show they are performing better than other schools.

Francis has quoted Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s Chief Executive, who said no teacher should be put in a position where s/he has to choose between integrity and career. I would add that no teacher should be put in a position of having their marks downgraded when they marked according to the criteria laid down by the exam board.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 02/11/2012 - 12:49

Surely exam boards gave their mark range when the GCSE English exam details were published before the cohort began their preparation? AQA, for example, published its Uniform Mark Range in 2009. It set the mark range for grade C as 180-209 out of 300. It also gave clear grade descriptors and criteria for controlled assessment.

AQA ran teacher standardisation meetings – schools were required to send one representative. Schools had to hold internal standardisation meetings and submit a sample for moderation by a moderator appointed by the exam board. Controlled assessment tasks had to be annotated to show where pupils had met the specified criteria. The moderator’s marks were compared with the school’s marks so that schools could make changes to bring the school’s marking in line with the exam board’s agreed standards.

Despite these stringent controls being in place Stacey says that “some” schools managed to slip through the net and “significantly” overmark. If this is so, why is there no criticism of moderation? Why has responsibility for this alleged overmarking by SOME schools being placed on ALL schools so that all are punished?

Andy's picture
Fri, 02/11/2012 - 15:11

There was an insight interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, with a female student affected by the fiasco and John Townsley, Executive Principal of two Academies in Leeds and perhaps more pertinently still a former Ofqual Board member:
(start time 2h 34m 08s)

Ignoring the issue of whether the student was treated fairly by her school re A Level options and/or whether she should/could have exercised her right to go elsewhere to study what she really wanted, Mr Townsley's comments were telling (e.g. a drop in grade C pass rates from 37.2% in Jan 12 to 10.2% in Jun 12).

It is entirely reasonable to suggest that school based assessment is influenced by the willy-nilly dictates of national floor targets BUT wholly unreasonable and unrealistic to infer/imply that there is wholesale generosity across the board. In this regard Francis is absolutely right to highlight what Ofqual and the examination boards themselves are desperately trying to hide, and that is that this is exactly what the moderation process is designed to bowl out.

What I suggest next falls somewhere into the spectrum from outrageous conspiracy theory through conjecture to balance of probability but it seems to me that there is a strong case here to surmise that all the signs indicate governmental interference - particularly the preceding background cacophany from earlier in the year relating to dumbing down, impossibility of year on year improvements, GCSEs to be replaced by more rigorous GCE 'O' level style exams, GCSEs not fit for purpose, Grade inflation etc, etc. All of this links well with the summer examination debacle with its impact of 000s of innocent students and lends much weight to the heavy dead hand of Gove bringing pressure to bear.

If I am right (and I'm determinedly sure I am not alone in this view) and it can be proven then (a) it will be then of Gove (b) it may well bring the end of coalition and (c) leave the government - and ergo the taxpayer - wide open to extremely expensive class actions brought by students and their families.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 07/11/2012 - 12:31

Radio 5 Live had a short item on GCSEs and marks for controlled assessments at the end of the programme linked below (at 53.27 mins). At teacher contacted Radio 5 Live to say that the marks for controlled assessment could be raised by (a) the teacher telling the pupils what they needed to write and hope that pupils would remember this when they were under test conditions, (b) as teachers know the questions in advance they can teach to the test and (c) keeping helpful displays visible in the test room.

As far as (c) is concerned, as far back as CSE days the examination board made it clear that displays needed to be covered up - examiners would make unannounced visits and if s/he saw uncovered displays in examination rooms then the centre could be censured.

Warwick Mansell spoke and said there was no categorical evidence that a large number of schools were doing this - it happened in a small minority. He said the examples were shocking but not surprising given the consequences to schools of their not meeting benchmarks - schools being forcibly taken over, the head being sacked (career over) and so on. This increased pressure on the classroom teacher.;n=250

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 07/11/2012 - 12:53

The Ofqual report produces some pretty convincing evidence that cheating was rife.

One of the excerpts quoted by Ofqual from TES forums suggests some SLTs were totally brazen about it:

“I've just read my school e-mail to find the instructions for getting the CA folders together, and including the instruction ‘All folders must be at or above target grade.’ This is being done by either getting kids to rewrite CAs after they've been marked, or by fiddling the Speaking and Listening grades to make up for lost marks on the written work.

Nailing both the extent and the location of this cheating could be achieved by looking at those candidates who were graded C or above by their teachers in CA modules, but below C by in written papers marked externally. This wouldn't be a wholly accurate test - some students might genuinely have performed better on the CA elements than on the written papers - but it looks a good place to start.

Many teachers - and their unions - have been making up a pack of lies about Gove's role in all this ever since August. Now it is clear that their cheating, not any imagined political interference, was a main cause of the grade boundary moves.

It will be interesting to see how many schools suddenly lose their appetite for legal challenge as it becomes clear their own crooked internal practices may be brought out in court.

This is an integrity issue and should be properly investigated and wrongdoers brought to book.

sunnymee:-)'s picture
Wed, 07/11/2012 - 20:24

I agree with Ricky Tarr, I think i have uncovered cheating at my school and i want justice, because I believe that all intergrity seems to have taken a back seat. Wrongdoers should be brought to book. i will not say too much, but i am ready to blow the whistle on my findings.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/11/2012 - 08:00

sunnymee - if you have evidence of cheating then it is your duty to inform the exam board. As an ex teacher I would be very angry if other teachers inflated results or gave a degree of help which goes over and above what is professionally acceptable.

I also hope that those teachers who gave anecdotal evidence on TES or other forums inform the exam boards with the evidence otherwise they are complicit in wrongdoing.

At the same time, exam boards should look at the role played by their own moderators who are supposed to look at annotated samples of work from each school in order to check the accuracy of the marking. Very little has been said about whether moderators were vigilant enough - all the blame has been heaped on teachers.

Gary H's picture
Wed, 08/01/2014 - 19:58

We are talking very high stakes here. Teachers' jobs are being put at risk by league table results. The answer is simple, you either get rid of league tables removing the incentive to cheat or you make sure all assessment is done in exam halls. Personally I would do both.

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