Channel Four’s recent Dispatches programme (June 15th) unveiled a (not so) hidden world of league table manipulation and deliberate cheating in our schools. What it exposed was not the odd problem, but systematic cheating by all parties from the point where a child enters our education system until they leave (hopefully) with a degree. From supressing achievement in baseline and other tests, to enable claims of higher than average progress for children with large scale copying of textbook content submitted as coursework. Our schools appear to be hotbeds of cheating. The manipulation of pupil registrations in school to artificially inflate GCSE or A level outcomes was also exposed. We were left with the impression of an education system in desperate need of reform and stringent control.
As a former teacher, now lecturer in education, I can say, yes there is gaming of the system when it comes to examination results. It’s not new. Twenty five years ago I recall, as a head of department, being told by senior managers to ensure that coursework was always ‘of the highest standard’ (that was code for highest possible grades) and to organise ‘coursework days’ (code for make them sit down and do it all). As teachers we didn’t write it for them, but perhaps our ‘guidance’ trod a fine line between helping and prescribing. I would sign up to ‘trial’ key stage three tests, knowing full well that the trial test would be very similar to the actual test. We would have a head’s up on what was coming up that year. Did I think I was cheating the system? No. I was merely taking full advantage of any permissible means that I could to bump up the grades for my school. My job depended on it. Falling results was an issue that could have cost me my job. Today the situation is worse with much greater pressure placed on Heads who transfer this down to Heads of Department and, finally, teachers.
The current mantra is that, ultimately, it’s the Head and the classroom teachers who are responsible for the examination results and the performance of the pupils.
Teachers are not responsible for the examination results. The only person who can be held responsible for the outcome of any examination is the person who sits it. This is where our system has gone wrong. We are foisting responsibility on the wrong people.
Teachers, Heads of Department and Heads should be held accountable for the education they deliver, but being accountable is not the same as being responsible. Schools must be accountable for what they teach (making sure they teach the correct specification for example), for the quality of teaching – ensuring that the teachers they have are properly trained, kept up to date etc. Heads must be accountable for the resourcing of their schools so that the staff and pupils have the right access to equipment, textbooks and materials. Teachers are accountable for the classroom environment, ensuring good discipline, planning, teaching and assessing the work that their pupils do. If the school delivers on all these things, they must also ensure that the pupils and parents are clear on their responsibilities. Parental support of the school and their own children is vital and, eventually, the children themselves must come to understand that they are responsible for their actions when it comes to working hard and revising for and sitting the examinations.
There’s a cartoon that I show trainee teachers. In the first panel, dated 1961 we have two angry parents waving an inadequate set of exam results in the face of a trembling child. ‘What’s the meaning of these grades?!’ they declare angrily. Move then to 2011 where the parents utter the same words, wave the same poor results, but this time, not in the face of the child, but the child’s teacher.
The biggest obstacle to tackling cheating and gaming of the system is the use of examination results and league tables as the main measure of school success. When teacher and school effectiveness is only measured by pupil progress and results, teachers will ensure that progress, whether real or not, is shown and that results will, by hook or by crook, improve.
It’s a fact of life that progression in learning is never continual, smooth and nicely incremental. It’s a bumpy ride that does not always move forwards, sometimes it goes into reverse. It’s also a fact of life that different cohorts of children, year on year, will perform differently in high stakes examinations, even when all other factors, such as the teachers etc. remain the same. School examination results should only be one factor in our accountability system. They should be looked at over time, say a five year period, not year by year. What we are now developing in our education system is ‘football manager/league syndrome’ where Heads are hired and fired, seemingly on the basis of a results blip and schools are ‘brokered’ across private companies, bought and sold like a faceless commodity with little or no reference to parents.
Choosing a primary or secondary school is a long term investment for children. Over five years the best schools can easily slip from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Requires Improvement’. Assessing how good a school is shouldn’t rely on short-term exam data only, but a long-term holistic assessment of the education provision.