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How teachers felt forced to ‘cheat’ on GCSE English marking

2 November 2012

3:55 PM

2 November 2012

3:55 PM

Ofqual’s final report, published today, on the GCSE English marking row, underlines why the qualifications need an overhaul and makes extremely awkward reading for the teachers who were so upset by their pupils’ results this summer. It concludes that the redesigned English GCSE was ‘flawed’, and that teachers felt under pressure to over-mark coursework to a higher grade than it deserved. The report suggests there was a culture of over-marking which led to other teachers doing the same:

‘While no school that we interviewed considered that it was doing anything untoward in teaching and administering these GCSEs, many expressed concerns that other nearby schools were overstepping the boundaries of acceptable practice. It is clearly hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe that there is a widespread loss of integrity elsewhere. No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, school and career on the other.’

Ofqual’s report contains a damning analysis which shows work marked by teachers was more likely to receive a uniform mark scale score (UMS) needed for a C grade. They used the January 2012 grade boundaries to calculate how many more UMS points a student needed to reach their target grade. But the January boundaries were found to be lower than they should have been, which meant pupils missed their target grade in the summer when they were raised again.

The graph below for the English Language GCSE offered by AQA, which has 62 per cent of the entry for English and English Language, shows that for controlled assessment work marked by the pupils’ teachers, there were large clusters of students gaining marks that pushed them comfortably into the grade boundaries for January 2012:

But the chart below is based on the actual boundaries for June and shows that many more students just missed the grades:


The graphs for AQA’s English qualification are even more striking. This is the graph for the January 2012 grade boundaries:

And this is the graph for the June grade boundaries, which again shows that many more students missed the grade C:

There are similar graphs for the other exam boards, and you can read them all from p69 onwards of the report.

Schools told the regulator that they would target a score for each student that would put them ‘safely within the score range for their predicted grade’. The report says that ‘when the boundaries were set at higher marks, these students did not achieve their predicted grades’. It also refers to teachers on online forums saying they felt as though they were cheating.

The exams regulator found that when the qualification was being designed, there was ‘a lack of openness… about the problems with coursework and the extent to which English GCSE was already under stress as a result’. It was the now-defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority which was responsible for those changes.

In the interim before the GCSEs are abolished altogether, students who started their courses this September will no longer sit modular assessments. But Ofqual says it will advise Education Secretary Michael Gove on how the new English Baccalaureate can avoid similar crises and flaws in its design. One of the areas the government is currently considering is whether a move away from coursework in the EBacc is a good idea.

This is of course a huge shame for the pupils involved, who may have believed they were going to achieve a mark that they then missed. And teachers are continuing to pursue their legal action against Ofqual and the exam boards, which means that though the regulator’s report is final, this isn’t the end of the row.

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  • Yorkshire Steve

    Alternative explanation for the shape of the graph:

    A key feature of the GCSE spec is that students can do more coursework tasks than necessary and then pick the best ones to send off. Rightly or wrongly that is the system that the independent regulators allowed to be set up and an approach that is actively encouraged at official training events by the exam boards.

    So students do the written paper in, say, January of Year 11 and get the ‘grade’ for the paper. They now know exactly what score they need to get on the controlled assessments to get a grade C (or indeed any other specified grade).

    Students do all the controlled assessment tasks and these are marked by the teachers.

    At this stage some students will be comfortably within a grade (a mid grade C for example) but have no realistic way of improving their grade as the exam is done and so is all the controlled assessment. They move on to spend extra time on the English Lit work (for example).

    Other students will be just below a grade threshold (on a very high D for example) but have 1 piece of controlled assessment that is sub-standard compared to their others.

    The rules strictly prevent them ‘tweaking’ this work – they must do a whole fresh task on a different topic title. The odds are that many will produce a piece of work that is in line with their other pieces and hence the sub-standard piece is no longer needed as part of their portfolio. They are now on a low grade C.

    This approach means we’ll naturally get ‘dips’ below grade boundaries and ‘bunching’ above.

    Now we may argue about whether this is a good system or not.

    What is clear is that it has been explicitly designed this way and given explicit approval by the independent regulators. Schools and teachers had no role in that process but have to deliver the spec as designed.

    So the shape of the graph is not down to teachers ‘cheating’ en-mass (there will be isolated cases of this) but more down to the structural design of the course that teachers are expected to follow.

    The fault lies with the politicians; exam boards and OFQUAL for approving such a faulty qualification design and ignoring concerns of teachers (many who, for example, said that 60% controlled assessment was way too high!)

  • Richard Mersea Island

    Teachers cheating to enhance pass grades has been going on for years.This is not a new phenominem.I observed it back in the eighties.

  • roger

    A decade ago I helped to sack a head of Mathematics who was taking the whole years GCSE coursework home to ‘polish it’ before sending it off. I saw boxes of folders in the back of his car outside his house and two of us from the management team had to practically strong-arm him to get them sent off, late.
    The current GCSE doesn’t have enough external verification, I don’t remember the ‘O’ level system having many problems. I used to be a marking examiner for GCLI and apart from to low script pay and taking up my summer everything was moderated and graded very tightly, can’t be done on the cheap.
    Given a large enough number of candidates there is nothing wrong with ‘normalisation, to give grade levels.
    Another point, a baccalaureate should not just be a bucket to shovel five subjects into, do it properly Mr. Gove.

  • Eddie

    As soon as you introduce coursework, you will be ‘cheating’ – because what happens is that monitors from the exam board come to colleges and schools and maybe glimpse at one or two scripts marked by teachers. Anyway, the bar is so low now that to get a good mark in coursework does not take much – it is more a test of effort than knowledge or intelligence or ability.
    When GCSEs were first introduced the coursework was up to 80% (incredibly). No, teachers and schools did not have to do all that as coursework – they could have chosen to do 20 or 40% coursework and the rest exams. 80% was the max. But every single school and college in the UK and every teacher will ALWAYS choose as much coursework as they are allowed for any course – because everyone knows it is, in essence, cheatwork – and a great way to boost everyone’s marks. To get 20 out of 20 in course work is not unusual, and 18 out of 20 is standard. Thus, a rather dim student only needs to get 25% on an exam in subjects like maths (if they have great teacher-assisted coursework – or parent-assisted come to that, as much parents cheat too!) to get a C grade.
    And now those who got GCSEs using that system are the teachers too.
    I would say that GCSE is so much easier then O level that all those who get B and C and even A in GCSE would have failed O-level. Only the A star pupils would get a C or B or A at O-level.
    GCSEs are so dumbed down and rotten to the core – but why it that? In a word: PARENTS – who want their kids to get clutches of A grades that would have been impossible in the good old O-level days when we did not have an ‘all must have prizes’ dumbed down educational culture.
    And don’t even get me started on how degrees are dumbed down and handed out to those who would not even have passed an O-level in the 80s. Many of these graduates become academics of course… (and I have argued with academics who absurdly claim that GCSEs are as difficult as O-levels. NO THEY ARE NOT!)

  • anyfool

    Have things become so bad in the media that they think it is ok for the Public Sector workers to cheat, the implication of the words “forced to cheat” is that anyone can excuse anything they have a mind to, ie. travellers forced to rip off the elderly to pay for extravagant wedding dresses, looters because they need a pair of trainers and MPs are forced to fiddle their expenses because they can.

  • PeterfromMaidstone

    Would the Spectator care to explain how it can write about free speech while banning conservative commentators here? All the while allowing the most despised and ridiculous trolls to pour forth their effluent all over the site to its great detriment. It loons very much that the Spectator stopped being concerned about free speech a long time ago.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Oh dear.

      • Fergus Pickering

        This is very boring. Be assured, PeterfromMaidstone, that asininine comment was not mine. However, it does encourage me to press on as our enemies would obviously like to close me down.

  • Chas

    ‘ No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, school and career on the other.’

    There is no part of the education system: school, regulator, exam board, teacher, parent or pupil; that does not eventually become corrupted at some level by the post-1997 changes.

    • Eddie

      Oh the changes are older than that! From the 80s onwards the school system in the UK changed into a league-table obsessed all-must-have-prizes system, where the old school intellectual teachers left, and a great many shiny little spivs entered in their place. The system has been massively dumbed down, massively feminised, and exam grades are all that matters – even at private schools – in a way that used not to be the case. Many of the best teachers who like teaching and are the cream of the profession and the most intellectual left in disgust.

      But that’s what parents want – they want their kids to get fistfuls of GCSEs even if they’re a thick as mud.

      Gove wants to change this, but how can he realistically do so? Because if the exams were made as tough as O-levels in 1984 or so then most would fail them!

      Most peopld don’t know the difference between education and training anyway – and confirm one’s suspicions that schools are just factories churning out corporate fodder.


    Oi! What’s the game? Comments closed on both McShane posts. At whose instigation Issy?

    Is it Dennis McShane we’re talking about here, or Dennis No-Mc-Fuckin’-Shame?
    Not only a crook, but a whining one. Spent it on combatting anti-Semitism, my arse! These Kuntz are disgusting; he and his whole Europhiliac Marxist Mob. Rather than applying for the Chiltern Hundreds, he should be hung for treason and buried in the Chilterns. All of ’em would sell their Grandmothers’ gold teeth to further the cause.

    • FRANKP1

      Btw sorry to post off topic. 🙂

  • the baracus

    This is a perfect example of the absurdity of the whole system, and a complete lack of awareness of human nature. Rather like MP’s expenses, the premise was that “honorable” members would only make the correct claims, the idea that you can ask a teacher to mark their own pupils, when they and the school they work in are so dependent on the marks reaching a certain level to pass the inspections / league tables is just plain ridiculous.

    In fact it would take a fool to miss the obvious response to that system, unless of course it also served a higher political purpose of making the Government look like they were in control of standards.

    The fact that millions of school children have been denied the right to have a challenging education that pushed them to reach there potential is missed.

    There are people complicit in this disgrace that should hand their heads in shame. And I don’t refer to the actual teachers..

    • Rhoda Klapp

      Yep, it was built in to the system from day one. Time to test according to an international standard over which UK politicians and professionals have no influence.

    • Stiffit

      Indeed, anyone who gamed the system in an investment bank, as effectively as these teachers are gaming the school exam system, would get a bonus.

      And don’t imagine that University PVCs aren’t sending emails to heads of school pointing out that they are ‘achieving’ the lowest percentage of first class degrees in the faculty, that these percentages affect national league table positions, and that the University will continue to target its resources on its most successful schools.

  • andagain

    In effect,schools are judgingtheir own work. What result did anyone expect? Of course,in a sense the Department of Education is also judging its own work.

    • Eddie

      Yep, like hospitals and doctors and surgeons assess their own work and do their own audits – but with them, the public has no access to data about how successful or not certain surgeons are!
      I found all this out when investigatinga hospital department during a complaint: we the public are not allowe to know which surgeons are good and which are not. Personally, after that learning curve, I wouldn’t trust any surgeon to slice a loaf of bread, let alone a person.

      Monitors come in to schools and look at samples to check marking – and teachers mark the way the exam boards tell them to. But the marking as instructed by the exam boards is so absurdly generous that no student can possibly fail coursework unless they are just lazy and don’t bother with it.
      The head teachers are cross because their school stats are judged on how many pupils pass GCCE English and Maths. No-one gives a shit that the whole system is so dumbed down as to be meaningless, and most C grade GCSE students now probably wouldn’t have got that even 10 years ago. If parents and everyone else expects ever-rising exam passes, then what does one expect? Teachers just try and meet silly targets however they can.

  • Oliver Demaine

    They’d only feel the need to cheat as they are not used to performing to a competitive and strict school system, which teachers being able to be fired if they don’t perform. Maybe this shows that the quality of training needs to be more strict too?

    • telemachus

      Blame the teachers as usual
      All that happened here is that teachers exhibited optimistic marking as you would expect for teachers marking a subjective essay of children under their tutelage
      The teachers I have met have the solidity and moral compass I would wish in a profession charged with moulding young minds
      Most of them are also intelligent enough to hate Gove

      • telemachus not

        I do not blame the teachers.Since the Labour Party made everything a commodity with a price,this was an inevitable outcome. Telemachus will blame everyone but the true villains as he is unable to face the truth.

        PS why does the Speccie allow this troll to continue posting? Is he on the staff?

        • telemachus

          The modular / course work model was developed by educationalists in the face of concerns from David Blunkett and Estelle Morris.
          It was reasonable to give it legs but now that it has failed it is right to think again
          It was nothing to do with party politics

          • Eddie

            Nonsense. Coursework was introduced when the GCE O level and CSE were merged into the GCSE which was launched in 1988 and was created by the Thatcher government and Kenneth Baker.

            Coursework had previously existed in CSE courses – for the less academic pupils – because that was a way of boosting the marks of the less able and also of keeping them on track and motivated aged 14-15/16.

            I have seen O-level papers and GCSE papers side by side and conclude that GCSEs are the level of the old CSEs – and relate to the level I reached at school in the 1st and 2nd year (ie pre-O level course).

            The change is noticeable, as is the massive dumbing down and the overly generous marking, no matter what educationalists and up-themselves academics or defensive parents claim. These days, even the A level does ot reach O level standard – hence so many going to university not knowing the basics (university lectures know this, and so the first year of all uni course is now devoted to teaching the basics which students who went to uni in the 80s knew from O levels and then A levels).
            I would not blame teachers though: they are just following orders… And those disgusted by the regime that rules the dumbed down schooling scam have left teaching, leaving the yes-men (and women, mostly), penpushers, unispiring mediocrities and bumbling sychophantic lickspittle bureaucrats. Some selective schools manage to give kids an education despite the curriculum, not because of it – butb you have to sneak that in really.

        • PeterfromMaidstone

          A lot of us do believe that telemachus is paid by the Spectator. It is really the only answer to the fact that he was able to ruin the old Wall and then become a purported reason for it being shut down. Since conservative comments are now being deleted while he is able to post whatever drivel he is told to, it is possible he will be used as an excuse to shut down most or all comment.

          Comment us still free (to non-trolls) at www coffeehousewall co uk

          • telemachus

            If you analyse the old wall you will see that closure was precipitated by Eddie while I was in New Zealand and posting very infrequently, dear vicar

            • Coffeehousewall

              Since I am not a vicar you really do make yourself out to be a complete twat by using that name, as if it gave you some power. It doesn’t. It just shows what a complete loser you are. You are so far from knowing anything that it is amusing to see you display your ignorance over and over again,

            • Fergus Pickering

              I suspect the vicar closed the old wall down so he could start up his new BNP/racist fan site at ‘the other place’, no Nicholas on the desert island I note, he has the good sense to stay well clear of the vicars racism.

              • Fergus Pickering

                Here we go again. I have no knowledge of the old wall and I would never accuse pretty well anybody of racism. This Fergus Pickering above is obviously Telemachus’s avatar.

            • Eddie

              telemachus – Eddie didnnot such thing, mate! It was NOT because of me that the wall closed as the Spetctor staff man Peter made clear – it was because of vile insults and bullying by religious types actually, who would not allow debate. The wall had descended into some sort of American-rabid-Christian-extreme-right-wing ghetto – and that is why it closedm because monitoring the abuse aimed at anyone outside its regular clique woudl take the Speccy too much time.
              I posted my opinions which is sort of the idea – to blame me for the wall’s closure makes you a bigot, a liar and a bully akin to someone perscuting anyone because of their opinions.

              But hey, I can see that your previous posts make you a fabricator of the truth – a liar, sir, actually.