The Sunday Times

December 11th, 2011

Tick all that apply: school exams are corrupt, easy, ripe for the axe

It is one of the greater mysteries of British life that people here are so slow to anger, even when their children are threatened. Nothing could be more important to parents than the future of their children and their chances in that uncertain future. Nothing could be more important to the country. Yet decade after decade our pusillanimous parents and citizens have said little and done less about the betrayal of our children though our state education system. Even now, after many education scandals and Britain’s collapse in international league tables, the best efforts of the present government’s education ministers to raise the alarm are met with cynicism or indifference.

Last week yet another education scandal hit the news, or rather a combination of scandals. A Daily Telegraph investigation demonstrated how corrupt our public examination system has become. Journalists discovered staff from some of the biggest exam boards coaching teachers, for handsome fees at expensive conferences, in how to get better grades for their pupils, including advice as to what questions will be asked by that board’s exams and which parts of the syllabus will be examined.

The investigations also showed how exam boards compete with each other commercially to make it easier for schools to get better grades. “Use our board and you’ll get more As” is the general message.

In one case Steph Warren, a senior official at the Edexcel exam board, told an undercover reporter posing as a teacher who was considering using the firm’s tests that “you don’t have to teach a lot” and there is a “lot less” for pupils to learn than with rival courses. Warren, who sets geography exams, said she did not know “how we [Edexcel] got it through” the official regulation system that is supposed to ensure high standards in GCSEs and A-levels. It also emerged that education publishers were making millions out of exam handbooks written by former chief examiners that offer insider information on how to get better grades.

Meanwhile, Ofqual, the body that supposedly monitors and regulates these things, was accused of turning a blind eye. More than a year ago Mick Waters, formerly head of curriculum at Ofqual’s predecessor (the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority), declared the A-level and GCSE systems were “diseased” and “almost corrupt”. Others have warned of the way exam boards sold advice on cheating the system. As John Bangs of the Institute of Education has said: “In the past Ofqual has seemed more concerned with putting up a defence of the exams system than properly investigating what is going on.”

One can only wonder what it would take to make it politically possible to destroy this corrupt system. We all know that modern exams are a constant misery for children, a misery for good teachers, although perhaps quite convenient for bad teachers, and a tragic constraint upon development and imagination: in no way are they a good test of teaching and learning. Talk to any teacher of very bright children, who must learn to disguise their abilities in these exams and stick to a kind of painting by numbers mark-grubbing. We also know that public exams’ marking is erratic, their grades horribly inflated and their results wholly unreliable. We even know that the whole system is in a nasty commercial way corrupt. And we’ve known all this for ages.

Given the apathy and denial that have allowed all this to happen over so many years, it seems unlikely that anyone at this late stage will be able to do anything much. But there are some quite simple things that could be done. All would save time, money and administration. All would allow children to step off the dreadful treadmill of modern education, which stifles imagination and learning in favour of mind-numbing Gradgrind exam points, and would free their teachers too. And they would work against corruption.

First the entire system of public exams should be scrapped. A new, hugely simplified system should be devised with the aim of having fewer exams, better exams, no coursework, more varied exams, more specialised exam boards and better marking.Incentives to corruption should be abolished as far as humanly possible; there should be no profit in exams. Ofqual and all its work should be abolished in favour of a new start by different people.

The point of having many fewer exams should be obvious. Children’s lives are made a misery by the number that weigh down on them throughout their school days. It isn’t necessary; the few exams of my childhood were less oppressive, much more interesting, considerably harder and much more informative about a pupil. Constant coursework should be abolished, too; equally oppressive, it has obvious risks of grade inflation, erratic standards and corruption.

Having fewer exams would also sort out the centrally important problem of exam marking. There is an extreme shortage of adequate markers and their work is worryingly erratic. Reducing the demand for marking by having many fewer exams would mean the time and skills of the better markers could be concentrated on a few crucial exams; poor markers would not be needed. At the same time marking should be better paid — and it could be if there were less of it.

Another reform should be an acceptance of variety — something historically suppressed in education in the name of equality. Children vary and so should the exams they sit. So, too, should the exam boards their schools choose. There could be the difficult exam board X for academic high-flyers, the sound vocational board V, the respectable middle-ranking board M for the less academic, or the very arty board A. Each board would have its own agenda and its own integrity and everyone from colleges to employers would come to recognise it.

Above all there should be no incentive for exam boards or teachers to cheat and no profit motive for them other than earning good fees for public services provided. They should have no incentive whatever to inflate marks and they should not be allowed to market their services to schools, teachers or publishers: they should not even have direct contact with schools or parents, least of all at chummy expensive conferences.

Exam boards, syllabuses and marking should come back under the disinterested umbrella of universities and other colleges, as in the past. But I don’t suppose anything much will actually happen: too few people feel the anger they should.