The great exam rigging scandal: time to reassess exams

Every year at this time students, teachers and parents have become used to the usual Tory Right mantra about a decline in standards and the dumbing down of exams. Such annual rantings undermine the hard work of young people and dedicated teachers, reflecting the elitist views of the Daily Mail and their ilk who refuse to accept that ordinary working class people can achieve at the same level as their middle or upper class cousins.

This year, however, the exams boards, clearly encouraged if not instructed by Gove’s department, have gone one step further in denying working class students access to further and higher education by rigging the results.

Students who achieved the same results have been awarded different GCSE grades depending on when they sat the exam. The students who have been hit the most are on the borderline between a C and a D, many of whom come from BME backgrounds.

Doing this during the time period of one GCSE has exposed the arbitrary nature and manipulation of GCSE exams to suit a political agenda. This scandal has enraged students, parents and teachers across Britain and rightly so.
According to the Guardian the worst affected GCSE English syllabus for grade reductions was AQA. 96,000 students sat this exam in the summer and 70 percent achieved a D grade or below.

For over 25 years successive governments have created an education system where the exam is regarded as the sole and key determinant of knowledge and achievement. Teachers have been pushed by league tables and Ofsted to place the emphasis of teaching on exam results. This has resulted in teachers spending most of their time during large parts of a child’s education drilling them to pass exams. Teachers’ complaints about the stultifying effect of this on ensuring that education is part of the development of happy and rounded human beings have at best been ignored and at worst  labelled as the failed ideology of utopian lefties.  Although, of course, within the elite schools, debate and discussion is still embedded in the curriculum to ensure creative thinking.

Teachers have got on with implementing the exam-oriented syllabuses and have become adept at getting young people through exams. No longer is the A grade simply the domain of middle class children, many more working class pupils are achieving good grades.  Rather than celebrating these achievements we find that year on year, egged on by the right wing press, governments say that this can’t be right, the exams must be too easy.  How can our universities tell who is really suited to attend when everyone gets good exam results, they complain.

Governments have tried a number of different ways of sifting out the ‘really able’ student who truly merits being at university. For example, they introduced the A*. However teachers have drilled their students too well and the ‘wrong types’ were still getting A*s.

This is of course very useful for the government.  They will now be able to claim that the raising of fees has not deterred young people to apply to university – there are plenty of places left –students just can’t get the required grades, they will argue.

‘Grade inflation’ we are now told by those who have been the main drivers of test mania in education, must be driven down! It is a nonsense, they cry, to expect a year on year rise, as there has been for the last 25 years, in GCSE grades.  The exam boards therefore decided to rig the exam results to ensure that significant numbers of young people did not get the good grades that they should have.

However, students, parents and teachers are not fooled by this crass attempt to re-impose Cameron and his wealthy friends’ control over the pathways to power and wealth.

The TUC conference voted unanimously to support a motion calling for students who sat their exams in January to be regraded and for an enquiry into the fiasco. The Welsh Education Minister has intervened and instructed the Welsh education board to regrade their students. We need to campaign for Gove to do the same.
This latest scandal has done more than simply expose their naked class cynicism and crookedness. This scandal has opened up an opportunity to take on the whole exam orientated education system.

Of course we must ensure that we apply as much pressure as possible where we can to get the government to reverse the grade boundary changes so that all those students get the grades they worked so hard for. However, we need to go further. We need to take a step back and look at what this fiasco has shone a light on – the bankruptcy of using exams as the main form of assessment in our education system.
At best exams are memory tests. We file tens of thousands of young people into dark and dingy church halls and gymnasiums, start a clock and fire a starting gun. No talking, no looking and no thinking – just scribble down as quickly as possible what you can remember.

The exam and results do not really measure ‘intelligence’ or how much ‘knowledge’ a person has compared to another. But there again, they were never really meant to. Access to smaller class sizes, private tuition and a more varied curriculum meant that the system always favoured the sons and daughters of the wealthy allowing them access to the pathways of power and privilege.

It is not a coincidence that one of the countries in which the market and competition has penetrated greatest into the everyday life of its citizens is also one in which its young people sit more exams than their opposite numbers in other countries.
Exams teach the young from a very early age that competition is the natural way of life. It is human nature. Some are strong and some are weak. The strong go on to survive whilst the weak don’t. Exams instil a sense of individualism, look after yourself and don’t worry about others, in fact distrust others; after all they probably want to steal your knowledge.

We should argue to scrap exams as the main form of assessment. Continuous assessment has proven to be a far more effective way in developing the creative possibilities in every young person. It is not natural to teach young people to act as individuals or groups of individuals competing with each other. In fact real life is about working collectively to achieve and create. If the restrictive frame of the market and competition was taken away we could really see what human beings are capable of.

While invigilating exams and watching my students file in one by one obediently taking off their hats, turning off their mobile phones and anxiously waiting for the firing gun to start them on a journey that will unfairly decide their futures, I wander off into a dream. In the dream a student breaks the silence of the exam room, stands up and demands that all the students push all their chairs and tables together so that they can answer the question collectively and they do. But then I wake up and see all those scared young people sat at their desks.  This can’t be right.

Sean Vernell, GCSE English teacher , City and Islington College.


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