Playing the system

21st December 2012 at 00:00
Schools enter pupils to same exams with multiple boards to raise results

Schools have been entering pupils for GCSE maths with multiple exam boards in a "frightening" attempt to achieve higher grades and improve league table rankings, a senior exam board official who led the government's curriculum review has warned.

The practice has developed around modular exams, where assessment is broken up into chunks throughout courses. Pupils take initial modules with more than one board and then continue with the board with which they score the highest mark, according to Tim Oates, director of research at Cambridge Assessment, which owns the OCR board.

Mr Oates revealed his "deep misgivings" about the practice after TES revealed last month that hundreds of secondary schools have been simultaneously entering pupils for GCSE and IGCSE English exams in a bid to gain higher grades.

Speaking at a publishing conference, Mr Oates said he had examined evidence that showed that pupils were being entered for initial modules in maths with multiple exam boards.

"I can tell you it's frightening," he said. "In my view, and I come from an exam board, it is an entirely illegitimate use of public funding in relationship to education. It is wasted money. I'd much rather see those exam fees being spent on high quality learning resources."

Speaking to TES afterwards, Mr Oates added: "Cambridge Assessment has deep misgivings about this. There has to be a question mark over the cost of this practice and whether it is simply being driven by accountability arrangements - the CD borderline.

"We are picking up signs from the system that modular GCSE has encouraged schools to double-enter students in key subjects in early modules and then certificate with the board in which the student is most likely to gain the highest grade."

Mr Oates said he could not provide specific figures as they were confidential. However, OCR is one of England's big three exam boards, working with more than 13,000 schools, colleges and other institutions.

Mr Oates' comments come as the exam system is being overhauled, with the government planning to scrap GCSEs and replace them with more traditional English Baccalaureate Certificates in English, maths and science. The plan is that these qualifications would each be assessed by a single exam board.

Ministers have also scrapped modular GCSEs, with courses that started in September 2012 being assessed with end-of-course exams in 2014. This should put an end to the practice identified by Mr Oates, although modular courses still exist at A level.

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of National Numeracy, said any attempts to "game the system" were "terrible for the child and the education system".

"The government has picked up on it and wants to get rid of modular exams," he said. "We support that move and the elimination of this kind of unintended consequence."

But Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said that double exam entries were symptomatic of a "flawed system".

"These schools are doing the best they can within a bad system," he said. "If you don't want people to do something, you shouldn't reward them for doing it and punish them for not doing it. It is not as simple as modular exams bad, linear exams good. They are different and each has pros and cons.

"There is an extent, though, to which the profession can be too complicit with incentives. At some point you have to say, this is no longer in the interest of the child. But the danger is, as stakes get ever higher, that professional integrity is being corroded."

The news about multiple maths entries comes after it emerged that hundreds of schools have been entering pupils for both English GCSE and IGCSE. The state schools, which are members of an organisation called the PiXL (Performance in Excellence) Club, have reported good results that have helped pupils to secure crucial C grades, although the tactic was described as "cynical" by a Department for Education spokeswoman.

The government is planning significant change to school accountability in 2013 in an attempt to stop schools focusing on pupils on the CD grade borderline. As revealed in last week's TES, one move being considered is to assign points to each grade a pupil achieves. Schools minister David Laws said there should be a range of accountability measures to stop the system becoming "excessively dependent on one thing that can be gamed".

Rising cost of exams

  • A report earlier this year by exams watchdog Ofqual found that pound;328.3 million was spent by English state schools on all exam entry fees in 2010- 11, up from pound;154 million in 2002-03.
  • Entry fees now make up 8.6 per cent of total school running costs.
  • Each individual GCSE costs about pound;28 to enter.
    • Photo credit: Getty

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number


The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now