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Primary Education News
News The nightmare of the teacher in the GCSE exam hall
Exam room practices need to be clearer and whistleblowing easier, to wipe out cheating, says Laura McInerney
People often have recurring nightmares about taking exams, but mine involves administering them. Watching students sit there, panicked, after you have taught them for several years is difficult enough. But worse is when they call you over, pleading with their eyes for you to say whether or not their answer is correct, and there's nothing you can do … or is there?
Last week, on these pages, Fiona Millar described the problem of malpractice in school assessments, highlighting particularly grade inflation in coursework. The view of the government is that returning to final exams in some core subjects will bring back "rigour". But it is a dangerous over-simplification to believe that getting rid of coursework is the only way, or even best way, to stop cheating.
If it is genuinely serious about improving fairness in results, the government should stamp out some of the practices that currently provide the opportunity for cheating. For example, with coursework assessments, teachers send a small sample of the work to external moderators, who check that it has been marked accurately and consistently. If a school is artificially inflating (or deflating) grades, the moderator should notice and will reduce marks for the entire cohort accordingly. However, at least one exam board tells centres which candidates' work will be required in advance of it being marked, meaning an unscrupulous teacher could have the selected students "polish" their work to a hard standard, mark it accurately, and then hand the exam board inflated figures for the other candidates, being reasonably confident that those pieces will never be checked.
Other exam boards require the marks to be handed in before the sample is selected. This ensures all work is thoroughly and accurately marked, with teachers unwilling to take chances by over-inflating any pieces, lest those are the ones moderated and the entire cohort's marks are subsequently reduced.
But let's say coursework goes altogether and we are left with just exams. As my nightmare reveals, teachers can become unwittingly complicit in cheating. Though most recent exam regulations state that no "centre staff" should interact with candidates at all during exams, it does allow for communication "to start the examination off" and to "maintain discipline". Faced with a group you've taught, who have worked hard and who you feel deserve to do well – and desperately wanting them to succeed – it is not unheard of for teachers to use coded messages in their "starting off" speeches, dropping in pertinent keywords for use in student essays. Such nudges are almost a human instinct.
Likewise, when the nightmare scenario arises and a student is pointing at their answer for approval, who will know if a quick shake of my head is one of disciplinary scorn or an ethical betrayal? Realistically, the answer is no one.
Thankfully most teachers uphold the highest levels of integrity in their practice, but in the face of restricted growth in top grades and league-table pressures, some teachers worry that by being strict with their own students they might be putting them at a disadvantage.
So, what can be done to reduce temptation? First, the rules about teacher exam involvement should be shouted from the rooftops. Everyone in exam rooms needs to be aware of what is appropriate. The Joint Council for Qualifications has issued guidance about the role of "persons present" in exams, but this needs to be made as clear to students as to teachers. All exam-sitters know they need to turn their mobile phones off; but do they know the rights and wrongs of a teacher reinterpreting the question for their friend in the next row?
Second, a clearer whistleblowing procedure, made known to students, teachers, exam invigilators and parents would offer greater collective responsibility for ensuring fairness in the system. At present, each exam board runs its own process, and protections of anonymity – or students' grades – are not clear. If we want to encourage more people to come forward, there should be one centralised body to which whistleblowers can anonymously report concerns. The service should be clearly advertised throughout the year, with no fear or shame involved in raising flags when lines are crossed.
The simple answer, of course, is that unless they are absolutely needed for very good reasons, teachers should not be in exam halls. If their presence is necessary, the rules should be crystal clear and individuals can then speak up if any dodgy dealings occur. If we managed that, then teachers could sleep easy at night.
Laura McInerney taught in London for six years and is now a Fulbright scholar