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Primary Education News
News GCSEs: schools are 'playing the system'
New allegations of schools bending rules and sometimes downright cheating in bid to improve standing in league tables
The release of this year's GCSE results was to be a pivotal moment for tens of thousands of pupils. But it was almost as significant for teachers, aware that in an era of school league tables and ever closer scrutiny of results this is their own moment of judgment.
With secondary schools still, for now, ranked in such a relatively narrow way – the percentage of pupils who gain five or more GCSEs or equivalent at C or above, including maths and English – it's little surprise that each year brings stories of new tricks and schemes to play the system.
For 2013 there has been considerable discussion about early or multiple entries for the same subject, particularly for the crucial English and maths exams.
But the pressure of what is officially known as accountability can bring more desperate measures. A series of teachers and exams officers have contacted the Guardian to make allegations about tactics used in their schools, from a significant bending of the rules to outright cheating. The claims cover academy and maintained schools, but many of those involved do not want to be identified. While experts and teaching unions believe open malpractice is rare, the examples illustrate the enormous stakes involved.
Several claims relate to GCSE-equivalent qualifications which are assessed mainly or entirely by coursework marked within schools, with teachers saying pupils were given significant amount of help with tasks they should have been tackling alone. A young teacher formerly at one academy school, ranked as outstanding by Ofsted, said she was asked by her headteacher to "amend" GCSE English grades assessed within the school, which comprised 20% of the total mark.
"The head didn't think the grades were high enough and told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to make them better," she said. "I asked her to clarify what she meant and she said, 'Do whatever it takes — it's for the children'. I left the school a year after arriving and was made to feel like I was not a team player because I wasn't prepared to 'play the game' and cheat."
A teacher at a successful maintained school was far more scathing about what he said were efforts to assist pupils excessively with coursework, and even in some cases in exams: "There's always a certain amount of pressure. There wouldn't be many teachers who do controlled assessment coursework who don't give the kids as much as they think they can. I just hope our school is one of the worst.
"It demotivates the pupils. These kids are then coming out with results that we know they haven't properly got. I had one sent back to us from the college where he was doing his A-levels, They said, 'This is not a qualified kid. He doesn't know the subject. He doesn't know the basics. How on earth did he get results?'"
Unions say they believe outright cheating remains very rare, and worry more about the system being "played", and that pressures will increase even more following the planned introduction of performance-related pay for school staff.
"For headteachers, it's increasingly like the football manager syndrome," said Sion Humphreys from the National Association of Head Teachers. " There, you're as good as your last game or your last three games; here you're as good as your last set of exam results.
"For the vast majority of teachers and school leaders the motivating factor is to make difference. It's a cliche, but it is what gets people out of bed in the morning. But, increasingly at the back of their mind is also, I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have a career, I have aspirations."