WHAT is the best way to make GCSE and A-Level exams easier for the class of 2021? This is the question taxing the best educational brains in England.
It is a well-intentioned question. The school closures and a continuing disparity in teaching provision have affected under-privileged pupils most of all. Some jobsworthy and politicised headteachers, though, are champing at the bit to send children home. A BBC report of October 20 stated that during the previous week almost half of secondary schools had excluded pupils for Covid-19 reasons.
Making next year’s exams easier is to be the answer to the question of how to level the playing field. The examinations regulator Ofqual is already planning a reduction in syllabus content, such as the removal of an oral component to GCSEs in modern languages. Now it has come up with an additional answer to the big exam question of 2021. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, candidates may be told in advance what the questions will be about.
In December 2011, I assisted the Telegraph in an undercover operation that lifted the lid on the very same practice. Examiners were secretly filmed telling teachers what exam questions would come up in the following summer’s exams. The undercover journalist told me she could not believe what she had heard and was able to film when she infiltrated one exam board’s profit-making, in-service training seminars.
‘We’re cheating, we’re telling you the question cycle,’ was the boast of a chief examiner.
The story was shortlisted for ‘scoop of the year’, was the main headline news on national television and provoked a Commons select committee inquiry. Not for the first time, I was able to tell the media, ‘I told you so.’
These days, examination fraud is no longer hidden away. In the past it was: ‘Pay your seminar fee and we give you the questions. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more . . .’
Nowadays, in contrast, cheating is boldly promoted by the government’s own examination standards watchdog as the best way forward in the interests of fairness and merit. The need for a level playing field at a time of Covid-19 trumps all, even reality.
As Margaret Thatcher pointed out in The Downing Street Years, however, ‘the purpose of testing [is] not to measure merit but knowledge and the capacity to apply it’. Examinations are counterfeit educational currency if they do not examine. A natural evolution of the way things are going might be to provide examination candidates with answers and to assess them on their ability to suggest the question.
The Department for Education insists that exams are the ‘fairest way’ to judge a pupil’s performance. It overlooks the fact that next year’s GCSE and A-Levels will be fake exams.
The Welsh government has decided to ditch exam papers altogether in favour of teacher predictions. Scotland is doing the same for its GCSE-equivalent National 5 exams. Their dishonesty will come from presenting unreliable and inflated teacher predictions as worthy of exam certification. English cheating or Welsh-Scottish hoodwinking? Do we want young people to be cheated or hoodwinked? Take your choice!
We teach children to be honest but whichever way one looks in the great examination game we find only dishonesty, fraud and chicanery.