School exams row inquiries launched


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Urgent inquiries into "shocking" allegations that teachers were given unfair advice about upcoming exams were under way tonight amid rising concerns about standards.

Two examiners with the WJEC exam board have been suspended following the claims, which centred on teachers being given detailed advice on forthcoming exam questions and how students could score higher marks.

England's exams regulator Ofqual has warned that exam boards could be forced to re-write next year's GCSE and A-level papers if it is found that teachers were given unfair advice on how to boost results.

According to a Daily Telegraph investigation, teachers paid up to £230 a day for seminars hosted by chief examiners.

During some of these seminars they were allegedly given advice on the wording students should use to increase their marks, and which questions they were likely to face.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said it confirmed that the current system was "discredited" as he ordered Ofqual to look into the Telegraph's claims, and report back by Christmas.

Conservative Welsh Assembly Member Angela Burns described the allegations as "shocking" and said they raised more concerns about a "lack of rigour" in Wales's education system.

"We need a thorough and urgent investigation into these serious allegations," she said.

WJEC, the Welsh exam board, today said it had suspended two of its history examiners as it announced it was conducting its own inquiry into the allegations.

The Welsh Government said education minister Leighton Andrews had demanded immediate answers from WJEC.

It is understood that the two WJEC examiners who have been suspended are Paul Evans and Paul Barnes, both of whom were named in the Telegraph's report.

Undercover Telegraph reporters attended 13 seminars run by exam boards, the newspaper reported.

It alleged that at these seminars, teachers were "routinely" given information about upcoming questions, words or facts that students should use to gain marks, and areas of the syllabus that teachers should focus on.

In one case, Mr Evans, a chief examiner with WJEC, was alleged to have been recorded telling teachers that a compulsory question in a certain exam goes through a cycle.

He is said to add: "We're cheating."

"We're telling you the cycle (of the compulsory question). Probably the regulator will tell us off," the Telegraph reported.

In a statement, WJEC said it was taking the Telegraph's allegations "very seriously indeed" and was "investigating the circumstances revealed by their undercover reporter as a matter of urgency".

It added: "The information given at the courses, including detailed examiners' reports on the previous year's assessment, is freely available on the website for all teachers, whether or not they are able to attend courses."

Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey today said that the regulator could order exam boards to rewrite papers if it was shown that improper advice was given to teachers.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that it was "certainly not acceptable" for examining bodies to tell teachers about the "cycle" of question-setting, so that they have a good idea what questions their pupils will face.

Asked what sanctions were available to exam boards shown to have erred, she said: "We can bring the awarding bodies to account and in fact we are meeting with them today.

"We can, if necessary, pull the examinations set for January and next summer, with awarding bodies then providing substitute scripts if that is needed.

"We can direct bodies to comply.

"We can't fine awarding bodies as yet, but Government is giving us that power in the future in the Education Act. That will be a useful tool as well."

It is understood that all the awarding bodies involved have pledged to investigate whether individual examiners broke the rules.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg called on the Government to act "quickly and decisively to ensure faith in A-levels and GCSEs".

WJEC chief executive Gareth Pierce told BBC News that the board needed to determine whether the language heard in the seminars recorded by the newspaper was "appropriate and acceptable within the terms of the event".

Mr Pierce said their inquiry was looking at a range of issues - "issues to do with the examiners themselves, whether they will be able to fulfil future roles, issues to do with future assessment, their integrity and fairness".

Edexcel, one of England's main exam boards, said that, like all awarding bodies, it runs "feedback events" for teachers which look back at the previous year's exams.

Their statement said their examiners' contracts specifically state that no discussion of the content of future exam questions should ever take place.

"Any breach of this clear contractual obligation is something we would take extremely seriously, and act on," it stated.

This summer, 8.2% of entries were awarded an A* at A-level, while more than one in four (27%) exams achieved at least an A.

Last year, there were more than 370,000 A* grades achieved at GCSE, compared to 114,000 in 1994.

And in the last 15 years, the proportion of pupils achieving at least one A at A-level has risen by around 11 percentage points.