Radical action is needed now to stop cheating

If I were a head who did everything strictly by the book, I think one of the things that I would resent more than anything else is the suggestion that others are less scrupulous.

There is no doubt that many schools do an excellent job of building and sustaining improvement over time. But some have improvement paths that look almost too sensational to be true.

On closer examination, and credit is due to the government for making such comprehensive school level data available, these stellar achievements often coincide with a change in intake, or more likely a change in curriculum. This is one reason why the use of GCSE results from some academy chains to justify primary school forced academisation is so flawed. The same quick fix simply isn’t available.

Regrettably now I think we must also accept that some schools are cheating. This past year has seen a steady stream of allegations from teachers and pupils, evidence of malpractice leading to grades being awarded by the exam boards and even annulment of test results.

In the past week alone one exam board has called for an end to coursework inclusion in final grades, claiming it is open to abuse. And a research project for the British Educational Research Association suggested teachers are under pressure to inflate marks in science coursework.

When Ofqual reported last year that teachers felt under pressure to “overmark” in GCSE English coursework, chief executive Glenys Stacey appeared careful not to use the word cheating. But in a recent report the whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work said it had received a dramatic increase in claims from teachers, particularly those working in academy schools, alleging they are under pressure from school leaders to do just that.

A recent Guardian request for information brought forward similar concerns and dismay about practices staff were being asked to follow.  Some of these claims relate to poor invigilation and exam hall practices, others to falsified progress scores in advance of Ofsted inspections but in most cases to the use and abuse of coursework and controlled assessment to ensure that the C/D borderline students are indeed well across that border before the final exam.

In one set of GCSE 2013 English grades seen by the Guardian the discrepancies between the coursework and exam marks of a significant minority of students are so obvious that it almost beggars belief that the exam boards don’t order their own investigations. Ofqual’s sudden decision to abolish the speaking and listening element of the English GCSE coursework last week with immediate effect comes as no surprise.

There was an outcry when the exams regulator first made its claims. Understandably so. The vast majority of heads and teachers are honourable. But schools are under unsustainable pressure to show year on year improvements.

The special status awarded to academies means that for them, the stakes are even higher. Success equals national adulation. Failure inevitably leads to a disproportionate and ghoulish interest in their demise.

But there can be no denying that there is a problem and no one really knows its extent. All the allegations that have surfaced relate to whistle blowers, but unfair practices don’t become fair because no one complains or speaks out.

And the consequences of malpractice can’t be ignored. It is unfair on other schools that are playing by the rules but more importantly it disadvantages rather than benefits pupils progressing to further education on a false premise.

Since many of these allegations revolve around controlled assessments and coursework, the proposed qualifications reforms may help to eradicate this. But at what cost? Reducing everything to a final exam ushers in a host of other problems not least for pupils with special needs

In the meantime coursework is still with us so schools should be held to account more rigorously after the final results are in, especially if there are obvious discrepancies between coursework and exam performance.

At the heart of the problem is the continuing reliance on the threshold five A*-C measures and the inevitable focus on the C/D borderline pupils. This doesn’t just mean other groups get side lined; it also makes it easier to discreetly manipulate outcomes for schools that are so inclined.

New accountability measures proposed by the government are a valid attempt to rectify this. A threshold measure of A*-C in just English and Maths will be balanced with a point score and a value added measure in “best 8” subjects. But the threshold measure is still likely to trump the rest.

Last month the think tank Centre Forum, whose report Measuring What Matters is a must read on this issue, strongly recommended that the government drop the threshold measure altogether and concentrate solely on progress as the key indicator so that all pupils count equally. This proposal was strongly backed by the chair of the Education Select Committee Graham Stuart.

I think both are right. No system will be perfect but integrity seems to drain out of the current one on a daily basis and something radical is needed now.

This article first appeared in the Guardian



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