Did the examiners really think they could get away with cheating?

The people who engineered this scandal are corrupt ideologues, conforming to simplistic stereotypes of the politics of resentment
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The Independent Online

It's not just the moral bankruptcy, is it, shocking as that may be? The truly disturbing thing about the three leading exam boards tampering with A-level results is that they did it so incredibly cack-handedly, so staggeringly badly. How did they ever imagine they could get away with it? How stupid can these people be – these people who sit in judgement over the cleverness of generations? And how stupid do they think the rest of us are?

It's not just the moral bankruptcy, is it, shocking as that may be? The truly disturbing thing about the three leading exam boards tampering with A-level results is that they did it so incredibly cack-handedly, so staggeringly badly. How did they ever imagine they could get away with it? How stupid can these people be – these people who sit in judgement over the cleverness of generations? And how stupid do they think the rest of us are?

First, when the decision had been made to mark down some results, what results do they appear to have alighted on as the most suitable to be plunged down from A, past E, to U? The sensible saboteur might have opted for a particular exam paper, which perhaps had a question or two in it that really had confounded a notable cross-section of examinees. Then a surprisingly low grade could always have been put down to nerves, or bad luck, even by the most dedicated of teachers, and by all but the most confident of pupils.

But no, the pen pushers, demolishing entire school careers on little more than a whim, chose a different route. They considered pupils' course work ripe for the knockdown treatment, work that the pupils' own teachers would have been familiar with, work whose abject failure would have been far more vulnerable to suspicion.

But let's just imagine that there was some compelling reason why this extraordinary decision was taken, some procedural difficulty. Why not then be a little bit canny with the selection of schools? Best to focus on the results from some large and not particularly highly rated state schools. Then pupils, and their parents, confronted with glaringly poor course work, would have to presume that their bog-standard comprehensive was every bit as inferior as the Prime Minister had said it was.

There's a possibility, too, in a large school that the pupils would never be in contact with their teachers again to compare notes. Anyway, the teacher in question might be demoralised enough, riven with enough doubts about his own constantly examined abilities, to believe that it was he who let his pupil down. And, crucially, that teacher might have less chance of having other teachers whose star pupils' results were also mystifyingly poor.

Our cheats don't do that, though. They instead decide to be even-handed in their destructive work. They marked down swathes of pupils from the same classes in the same schools.They also targeted independent schools, with pupils who have much greater confidence in their own abilities, and teachers whose careers have been built on their success in getting their pupils into prestigious universities. Likewise, the parents who are more than keen – why else would they pay twice over for the education of their children – to see the best results they know their children to be capable of would be cheated as well.

And lo, it was due to such mesmerisingly silly tactics that the exam boards got caught. One would be tempted to award them a double first for stupidity, were it not for the nagging suspicion that they'd sneak off somewhere and try to get their grade bumped up a little. In fact, their actions seem so awesomely idiotic that one begins to wonder whether or not this might be an amazing double bluff.

Think about it. You and your colleagues are dedicated to your work, take it incredibly seriously, are more than aware of the crucial importance your decisions have on young, hard-working people. Then one day a ghastly command comes from on high. You and your colleagues are told that you have to doctor results. Only by doing so in in the crudest, clumsiest, most obvious way possible can you blow the whistle on your superiors' evil-doing...

Sadly, with the best will in the world, such an explanation is not plausible. Never has whistle blowing been easier. Neither, for that matter, has resigning from one job in education, and landing another one. Those who carried out this cruel, mean subterfuge had choices galore. And fiddling about with children's futures, rather than facing reality, is what they chose.

Only one narrative adequately accounts for the behaviour of the people who engineered this scandal. That explanation is that they are corrupt ideologues, effortlessly conforming to the most shameful, stunted and simplistic stereotypes of the politics of resentment, unable or unwilling to admit they are wrong. Without the personal qualities that lend them the grace to be able to make a positive difference to the world, they instead give full vent to the negative qualities that smear their environments.

All the cheating, it appears, was undertaken to disguise the fact that the restructured, two-part A-level really was conforming to a trend critics had been suggesting for years – much easier to pass, and pass well, than in previous years. Those who complain about this view are said to be elitists, unable to believe that ordinary people can scale the heights that they themselves once did, huffy about the fact that their old Oxbridge colleges cannot cream off "the brightest" with quite the patrician ease that they once did. The desperation here seems to have been born of a refusal to admit that one or two of the "elitists" were merely shrewd critics.

No elitists this lot, they believe in equality, but an insane sort of equality in which people cannot be equal and different but instead have to be equal and the same. Unable, for obvious reasons, to expand their redundant vision to imagine it as the basis for a better society, they instead resort to attempting to create a worse one.

Charged with rising to the challenge of spreading to more people the privilege of opportunity, they fail. Unable by their machinations to raise the less privileged up, their final resort has been to bringing the more privileged down.

The obsession with Oxbridge continues, with tales of girls (usually) rejected despite their strings of As. Why on earth the people with As are encouraged in their delusion that the life of the mind is over for them at any other university, I cannot imagine. Instead of complaining about the lack of social mix at Oxbridge, educators should be holding that up as a jolly good reason for choosing somewhere more egalitarian.

It is a madness, this obsession with academic success alone, and particularly the sort of academic success that the upper classes defined for themselves centuries ago. The desire is to have more and more children passing more and more examinations and having the tables of statistics to prove it. The aim, finally, is to look to a couple of institutions, entry to which an entire system of social engineering is geared, for confirmation the elite is being beaten.

Initially brought in by the Tories, the emphasis on tests and results was deliberately introduced to show the state education system in the worst possible light, as a way of bringing it into disrepute. Under Labour, the game has been to keep the stupid system, but tinker with it so that it gives the opposite answer to that it was designed to come up with. Now, after this latest, scandalous calamity, it is time to give up this absurd and pointless exercise.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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