‘We run the risk that trust in public exams will be systematically eroded’

The process of developing exams must not be allowed to withdraw behind the curtain, writes one leading educationist

Kevin Stannard

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Teachers cheating by disclosing exam questions reached the front pages of the national papers last week. Some commentators jumped on the news cycle, pedalling furiously, demanding that teachers be disallowed from taking roles in the examining process, particularly that of principal examiner. There were calls to "build a wall" between assessment and education: surely you can’t be a citizen of both countries.

In this instance, the spotlight fell on the Cambridge Pre-U, the alternative to A levels. A decade ago at Cambridge International Examinations, I was in charge of seeing the qualification through syllabus and assessment design and into existence as a recognised qualification. I no longer have skin in the game, but I did take a close interest as the qualification grew and took its first steps.

The design of Cambridge Pre-U involved no change in rules of engagement for teachers. In fact, it actually aimed to reverse the trend of disengagement: over the years, fewer practising teachers had been involved in examining because of the time commitment, poor remuneration and disillusionment about the top-down nature of change. Many teachers were excited by the opportunity to be involved in an initiative outside the grip of political control.

We sought to restore the priority of teaching over testing, by commissioning practising teachers – experts in their subjects – to design, from first principles, an inspiring two-year teaching programme to bridge between GCSE and undergraduate entry; and only then to involve assessment professionals to look into how it might be examined. Each subject was explored on its own terms, with its own disciplinary integrity; there was no requirement that French be treated the same as physics in curriculum, pedagogical or assessment terms.

Teachers were not held at arm’s length; exactly the opposite, they were welcomed as co-creators. Chinese walls between teaching and testing are obviously required, and they are based on trust, as is the rest of the process, including coursework and invigilation. To assume that without complete separation, teachers as professionals cannot be trusted to behave with integrity, is something of a calumny, individual incidents notwithstanding.

We need a completely level playing field, with everyone having access to the same information about the exam system. Insider information is fundamentally unfair, but that’s a bigger issue, involving not just teachers as examiners, but examiners running courses on how to raise your grade, and exam boards endorsing textbooks.

A complete separation between testing and teaching might reduce the likelihood of individual acts betraying trust, but it risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Testing would withdraw behind the curtain and the system would become much less accountable to teachers, schools and candidates. Trust in public examinations – the commodity in question here – would be more systematically eroded.

What we need is more, not less, engagement. The process should be as visible as possible, to as many as possible. To adapt Lincoln’s words, we need assessment of the people, by the people, for the people – the "people" in this case being all those with a stake in education.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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Kevin Stannard

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