Monday, 9 January 2012

I blame the free market for exam board cheats

A-levels exam
The furore over exam board practices is a symptom of a deeper malaise. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

For secondary school teachers like me, training sessions run by the exam boards are invaluable. And I've attended plenty of meetings where there have been strong hints about upcoming questions, similar to those exposed by the Telegraph this week. I've never heard an examiner being so open about the sorts of topics that the exam would cover, though: I blame the free market system for this behaviour. Exam boards are very anxious to keep their customers satisfied, and perhaps they think it only fair to give a little extra. After all, those attending are paying good money – often hundreds of pounds – to go to a short talk.

In the majority of cases, though, your school stumps the cash for you to go because, even if you don't get a copy of the forthcoming exam paper, these meetings give you a vital insight into how to improve your pupils' grades; something your career, your pay packet and your school's future depend upon. The main function of these seminars is simply to translate exam board jargon, often so bewildering in official documents, into friendly English.

The scales have fallen from my eyes in a few of these meetings. For example, a few years back I taught an A-level English language course and my students had been getting consistently poor results in one unit; I'd read and re-read the bumpf – the mark schemes, the examiners' reports – but it hadn't helped. Then I attended a meeting and was told a few key things, among which was the importance of fostering genuinely personalised responses among my pupils; and the examiner explained how to do this. I changed the way I taught and was rewarded with considerably better results.

This anecdote is significant in the light of the furore caused by the Telegraph's undercover reporting. On the whole, exam boards are not telling teachers exam questions so that pupils can be spoon-fed the answers, but quite the opposite. They are reassuring teachers that the questions are predictable, in order to try to persuade them that students will get the best marks if they come up with their own ideas rather than producing copy-cat generic answers to what are essentially generic questions.

This "cloning" is happening because all GCSEs and A-levels are now marked by measuring the degree to which pupils meet the relevant assessment objectives (AOs); these are essentially the key subject skills. Exam questions are shaped by the AOs; this means the questions are rarely surprising. For example, in my own subjects, English and media, I feel confident about the types of questions that will be asked in the exams, even if I can't be sure of the exact wording.

An examiner could therefore point teachers in the right direction – perhaps misinterpreted by the Telegraph as telling teachers the questions – without feeling that he or she was saying anything new; most teachers would have guessed what questions were going to come up anyway.

Exam boards have put a renewed focus upon "personal response" (somewhat ironic considering their questions are anything but). This is a noble aim but I'm not sure the current regime of exams is delivering the originality of thought that we all want. Exhaustive academic research into this area was conducted by the Assessment Reform Group in schools. Its report, Fit for purpose? seriously questions the validity, reliability and cost-effectiveness of our national assessment system, finding it to have a negative impact upon the quality of teaching in classrooms, pupil motivation and "genuine" standards. While I don't agree with everything the group says, I think its powerful, evidence-based arguments have never been taken seriously enough by the powers that be. Let's hope this latest debacle leads on to a more serious debate about the role of exams in our schools.

Michael Gove faces legal action as rebel primary battles his academy plan

Michael Gove, the education secretary, is facing legal action by the primary school whose supporters he branded as "ideologues" last week for fighting his plans to turn it into an academy. Lawyers for the governing body of Downhills primary in Haringey, north London, have escalated the row by accusing Gove of illegally trying to force the school to become independent of its local authority and be taken over by a sponsor.

The Tory cabinet minister has been given less than two weeks to respond to a "statement of claim" against him or face a judicial review over his conduct, which parents at the school say has been unfair and politically motivated.

If the school is successful, it could not only protect Downhills from becoming an academy but stall the government's drive to push schoolsinto independence from their local authorities by making ministers rethink their methods.

The development is the latest twist in an extraordinary dispute that washighlighted by the education secretary in a speech last week.

Gove wants to force Downhills, which inspectors last year put under notice to improve its performance, to accept that it will become an academy by the end of this month or face the dissolution of its governing body.

The move is part of a government drive to turn 200 underperformingprimary schools into academies, funded by the state but run by sponsors which are often private companies, trusts, charities or religious organisations.

However, Gove has been frustrated by parents and governors at some schools, including those at Downhills, who have rebelled against the changes. Last week the minister described campaigners at the school fighting his academies programme as "ideologues" who were putting "doctrine ahead of pupils' interests" by preventing him from tackling failure. However, parents and governors at Downhills believe they have a strong case against the government. They say drastic steps have been taken to lift standards and a monitoring visit by inspectors last September found a "clear trend of improvement".

The school's headteacher, Leslie Church, told the Observer that Downhills was due for an Ofsted inspection within the next four months and it was premature of Gove to force it to act now. "At the moment the school has a notice to improve and we are awaiting an inspection which will either take us out of notice to improve or, if the worst comes to the worst, we would be put in special measures.

"What we are asking the secretary of state to do is wait until we have had that inspection. Clearly our results have improved and we would hope to continue with that improving picture. We have sent a letter of claim, it is eight pages long, which sets out why it is an unreasonable intervention at this stage."

Roger Sahota, a governor, said: "We are saying that the secretary of state has acted unlawfully by forcing Downhills to become an academy and that action is premature in advance of the next Ofsted inspection. It is quite clear that the attainment records are improving and what they are doing is ideologically or politically motivated."

It is understood that a number of other primary schools are consulting lawyers over Gove's attempts to force them into academy status and campaigners say the minister is determined to do away with local authority control.

Church said: "I am neither for nor against academies. I think it is right for communities to decide what school they have. Therefore if the drive to change all schools to academy status is something the government wishes to pursue, that is something that should be put before the electorate as a manifesto.

"Outstanding schools are being encouraged into academy status, schools at the bottom end are being forced to become academies, so that leaves schools in the middle, and basically my understanding is that the financial viability of local authorities is left in the balance. Is the motivation to take all schools out of local authority control? I just don't know."

Janet Lalleysmith, whose four-year-old daughter attends Downhills, said she was not aware of any support among parents for academy status. "Gove is not addressing the reality that parents are defending the school. There is nothing magical about being an academy.

"What is needed is intelligent thought about each particular school. Instead we have slash and burn, completely against the 'big society' and localism ideals."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Haringey's primary schools are the worst performing in inner London. This year, results went backwards - dropping below both the national and London average in English and maths. Similar local authorities in London, such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, outperform them. It is vital that improvements are made quickly, which is why we are looking at academy sponsorship to turn around failing schools. We cannot simply stand by and let schools fail their pupils year after year."

• This article was amended on 8 January 2012. We added a comment from the Department for Education in the last paragraph.