From the Editor - Our A-C obsession paves the way for scandal

16th December 2011 at 00:00

It wasn't quite as cringeworthy as the Duchess of York offering introductions to her ex in exchange for wads of cash or as odious as greedy politicians prostituting themselves to the highest bidder. But the trio of examiners caught on camera last week showing teachers how to game exams was pretty arresting, even if it can't have been a surprise to those in the know.

The exam boards are not, however, the only ones giving away trade secrets. There is an entirely separate market of examiners privately peddling their expertise (see pages 8-9). For a couple of hundred quid, teachers and pupils can glean "insider information" on answering tricky questions from genuine, real examiners. Not the artificial variety, mind. These are practising, senior examiners - the ones who set and moderate the actual exams when they aren't touting for business on how to pass them.

Most of this activity is, it seems, legal. It nevertheless stinks. Can you imagine a football referee being paid to take a player out before the game and coach him on the foibles of the linesmen and the peculiarities of the pitch? So why is it acceptable for serving examiners to pimp themselves out to teachers as guides on how to, as one elegantly put it, "cheat"? And how on earth did we arrive at this pass?

The reason why we are where we are isn't hard to fathom. It's what happens when exam boards compete to offer similar products to an audience that is only judged on one thing - exam success. As demand is so overwhelming, and as the boards are not allowed to compete on price, the only way to satisfy the market and differentiate qualifications is to highlight, or perhaps whisper, comparative ease. The simpler the exam, the higher the pass rate, the more satisfied the customer.

Until the frank revelations to a hidden camera last week, exam boards routinely denied that they were engaged in anything so vulgar as a race to the bottom. Good gracious no. Even now, most would claim that their different exams meet different curriculum needs - in the same convincing way Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel claim to have saved the euro. But despite the denials, evidence shows that exams that are perceived by teachers to be easier are proving more popular.

Clearly, everyone involved in this unfortunate state of affairs should be stoned or lose a limb or at least be put in the stocks. But once the moral outrage has subsided and a couple of scapegoats have been sacked, who can we really blame? Perfidious exam boards? They didn't create the market; they're just players in it. Would they earn any credit for tougher tests and fewer customers? Moonlighting examiners? Lubricants in a system geared to one remorseless goal. Game-playing schools? They play because their future depends on a single measure - exam excellence.

So by all means, let's end the market in qualifications. Let's accept that an exam board's purpose should be to devise a test that evaluates learning accurately and fairly, not to compete with its peers or help schools get as many pupils to pass as possible. And, yes, let's ban serving examiners from freelancing their favours. But let's not kid ourselves. If the only way we judge a school and its pupils is by their haul of A-C grades, is it surprising that people do all that is just permissible, if not exactly honourable, to get them?

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