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HomeNewsChris McGovern: Two cheers for the end of exam coursework

Chris McGovern: Two cheers for the end of exam coursework


A-Level and GCSE results are due on August 17th and 24th respectively. The first tranche of linear A-Levels, including English, History, Chemistry and Physics, has been sat. The reformed exam does away with modules as part of the final A-Level grade.  Assessment will be at the end of the two-year course – a final exam. The same process applies to the new GCSE. The first papers, in English and in Mathematics, were, also, taken this summer.

The Blob is far from happy that its beloved ‘continuous assessment’ has bitten the dust. In its view, modular exams have been a runaway success. After all, it has led to record-breaking results and, largely, done away with the concept of failure. Last year the A-Level pass rate was 98.1 per cent and at GCSE it was 98.4 per cent (with 66.9 per cent attaining the top A*-C grades).

Not even politicians, however, were ever completely fooled by the great examination success story. With the advent of ‘coursework’ modules came the predictable cheating. Such was the heavy input of savvy parents that one former schools minister suggested that it should be mums and dads who received the certificates rather than their offspring.

Even when, eventually, coursework assignments were required to be done in school as a ‘controlled assessment’, little changed. Overwhelming anecdotal evidence and a handful of media investigations made clear that support from home was still common and that teachers were making a large contribution to supporting weaker candidates. At times this extended to writing the assignment for a pupil to copy.

And the corruption did not stop with the coursework modules. A few years ago, I helped alert an investigative journalist that all was not quite what it seemed when exam boards ran their profitable courses for teachers. Posing as a teacher, the journalist paid the fee and signed up for one of the exam board’s information sessions. Secretly, she filmed what was going on. It included a chief examiner informing the assembled teachers about which questions candidates could expect in the next exam and the boastful admission that, ‘We’re cheating.”

This story became headline news and was shortlisted for ‘scoop of the year’. Although, within the teaching profession all of this was common knowledge, ‘omerta’ prevailed. It still prevails. The Blob is an educational mafia. A code of honour, of silence, is respected and observed within the teaching profession – out of loyalty or out of fear of repercussions for one’s livelihood.

Corruption runs deep in the examination system. Sadly, it was ever thus. I began my teaching career in a comprehensive school of 2,000 pupils. It did not take me too long to work out that if I wanted to improve the exam chances of my pupils, I needed to know what a senior colleague was telling his pupils to revise. He was an examiner and the revision topics he left written on his classroom blackboard were what came up in the exam.

Once a parent thanked me for ensuring that her daughter had achieved the top grade. She added, with a laugh, that her daughter was convinced that I must have known in advance what was going to be on the exam paper. Perhaps, I should have sounded the alarm but I feared the consequences and kept quiet.

My fears were justified. Some years afterwards, in the late 1980s, when a teaching colleague and I did break ‘omerta’ and go public on failings in the exam system, albeit in a different context, we suffered profession assassination and, effectively, permanent banishment from state school teaching.

At the time Melanie Phillips was a Guardian journalist. In a lengthy article for that newspaper she reported our criticism of how public exams were being dumbed down. She noted that had the authorities in East Germany handed out the treatment we received, rather than the Tory council of East Sussex, there would have been widespread outrage.

The return to linear exams should help restore some credibility to the exam ‘currency’. It is a move in the right direction. It will not end the corruption of the system, however, as exam boards compete to be easier in order to attract punters and the ‘pass’ grade level is moved to any mark desired.

Meanwhile, ‘omerta’ will remain a guiding principle of the teaching profession. Say what you like about the new exams, provided it fits with the ideology of the Blob. Expect anything and everything from the educational establishment when the results come out, except for the unvarnished truth.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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