Why waste a teaching opportunity? The language of cheating.

Although Year 13 TOK presentations are approaching, it is never too late for a little stimulus.

I thought I would channel my frustration at being labelled a “cheating” English Teacher in some current media stories into an idea for presentations. A reminder, you need a “real life situation”. This is the #GCSEFiasco, as it is known in the twittersphere. You also need a Knowledge issue. Hopefully you will identify several once you read on.

To recap: This summer, thousands of students predicted C grades in English attained Ds. There are other subject areas affected, but English bore the brunt of the apparently harsh grading (not marking) by the exam boards. This grading seems to have been generated largely by the insistence of OFQUAL that there could be no “grade inflation” this year and a further insistence that the numbers attaining all grades should have been preordained by the levels of attainment reflected as far back as Key Stage 2.
Tough luck if this happened to be a year which did indeed show genuine improvement.

Because many teachers feel badly let down by the excuses given for the sudden hiking of Grade Boundaries between January and June – especially for boundaries applied to Controlled Assessment where the tasks had not changed one bit, there has been a long running argument in the media, particularly on Twitter, which has now led to a group of schools, head teachers and unions taking legal action against OFQUAL. Because of this, let’s leave that until the action is concluded and look instead at the way that knowledge related to the mess has become disseminated.

Today’s press has seen teachers labelled as cheats. This is the Headline in today’s Daily Mail:
Grading fiasco of scandal-hit English GCSEs is blamed on cheating teachers

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2226600/Grading-fiasco-scandal-hit-English-GCSEs-blamed-cheating-teachers.html#ixzz2B4rK6N2I
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How good a vehicle for knowledge is Language? This kind of blunt instrument does so much harm. Teachers are cheats – no question, we deliberately and maliciously set out to break all the rules to our perceived advantage.


Of course not. Now I am not going to pretend that all teachers are saints or that no teacher has ever sought to assist their students to a higher grade by “optimistic” marking. There is enough evidence to be found of manipulation so severe that cheating is the only word for it. I know of one Primary Head who lost his job after regularly “editing” the KS2 SATS papers at his school -interestingly he was not hidden by his staff once suspicions began to emerge- and who has now presumably caused a curious blip in national statistics in his local area – y10 and 11 should be nicely ripe for inflated GCSE targets by now. There must be others at all levels, some thus far unidentified. But the vast majority are not cheats and have broken no rules. This is not a “just obeying orders” defence, but a request to look more closely at the charges:

“Teachers over-marked” – no doubt some did, not maliciously but possibly due to some confusion over whether little Timmy had “begun” to show awareness, or was showing “some awareness”… even with internal moderation, this is a hard call. It is also noteworthy that few schools seem to have been told by the Exam Boards in June that they had anything other than well-marked work. Indeed most Controlled Assessment papers are moderated first in school, then by exam boards before the marks are converted into grades – remember, teachers do not award grades, we mark in bands and have no real awareness of the grades our marking will generate.

Tactics were used by teachers to ensure high marks: Well why would they not be? What might those tactics be? Use of unwarranted extra time is alleged, as is the use of mock controlled assessment tasks. Well, not at my school. On the other hand, consider this: The WJEC GCSE Language specification which my school sat, states that students may be told of writing tasks for CA in advance of the actual assessment. In the face of possible complaints from parents who see neighbouring schools doing this, are any going to refuse to do so? In effect, therefore, students are given preparation time for a description or narrative, for which they are given 1 hour in class. How many students do not make use of this time I wonder to hone and polish their work before they commit it to memory? How many parents consider the Grail of an A to be so worthwhile that they pay a tutor to prepare the work for/with the student? How many teachers watched for the hour and saw students writing solidly for 45 minutes with no pause for thought? As long as no two students write identical work, this can not really be called plagiarism, but what evidence do we have that this is the students’ own work? Is any one cheating here, or is the system simply utterly naive?
Another tactic is writing frames. These have long been used and are a tool I loathe. On the other hand, the WJEC Shakespeare essay is the most bizarre hybrid imaginable – a 4 hour CA based on 1 play, 2 poems by different poets and a further group of poems thrown in for good measure. Mine managed to write on the idea that women “lack retention” in matters of love in Twelfth Night, AND a further 5 or 6 poems from an anthology – in one essay. The title alone filled four lines. The need for some kind of scaffolding is obvious if one is going to manage such a diverse piece of criticism, if only to organise thoughts – these were 14/15 year olds, not undergraduates. But, yes, there will be some for whom the scaffold is so detailed that students do little more than filling in the blanks.
For these, there is an explanation, if not a clear excuse, in the eyes of some: teachers are held hostage to a system in which the A*-C level is God. They are assessed to this in terms of National League Tables as well as held accountable professionally should their cohort not achieve these levels or their targets. Given that for many this accountability may well be job threatening (or perceived as job threatening, which is, in reality, the same thing), it is hardly surprising if they are over eager to assist the development of a coherent line of argument. Quite why such scaffolding was not picked up at Board moderation is beyond me, however, since the outcomes are usually so formulaic to be obvious.

Teachers gave extra time. Again, some may have done so, but surely this is the minority. Consider though the practicalities of the Shakespeare CA above. A 4 hour CA required 5 1 hour lessons to take place. Some SEN students received an extra 25%. For me that means a CA spread over two weeks. I kept all paperwork under lock and key, but assumed that students continued to think about the task in their own time. It is possible that my students received a few minutes over or under the 4 hours – I was timing carefully, but across this sort of period, can I be sure? Well, yes, I can. As with all my colleagues at school and the vast majority of teachers across the country I took the organisation of CAs very seriously indeed.
To this end, once completed, they were locked away and marked. NO improvements and no alterations. Indeed this was the frustrating point. A Twitter colleague, @learningspy has written about this elsewhere, and draws attention to the fact that all teachers knew that under the old system they would have made suggestions for improvement and the resultant final draft would have attained a higher mark. Still we plodded on, some voicing concern about the new CA system, but generally working on a “wait and see” approach.
We have waited and we have seen that we have been labelled as cheats in the press. Thanks a bunch. No doubt there were some SLT instructions in some schools, no doubt there were some teachers who marked to the top end of the criteria, but not everyone in every school. And not this year only, if this is the case.

Teachers are not saints, but neither are we the only sinners. The system is rotten to the core. CAs are no improvement on Coursework and league tables ensure that everyone is pressed to mark to the upper end of the scale one way or another. Remember that in schools where teenagers who were marked up at KS2 are now sitting GCSEs, these children may well be targeted an A or even an A* – on false data. I am sure their KS3 teachers looked at their work and commented that the level 5 seemed wrong, but once it was in the system it was deemed to be fact. So begins the problem. 1 teacher tries to boost his schools’ SATS results at KS2 – many secondary teachers are weighed down by unreachable targets. Some have supportive management teams who recognise their endeavour; others do not and feel pressured to “enhance” the marks they award. These enhancements are not picked up by the fail-safe of moderation and thus begins the idea that all teachers cheat.

The matter has come to light because of OFQUAL’s somewhat heavy handed treatment of the grading this year. Students who finished in January were called “lucky” by the head of OFQUAL, Glenys Stacey whilst those who attained the same marks in CAs in June received lower grades. This goalpost moving is what prompted the outcry and legal action. Teachers, Headteachers and governors have united to try to protect their own schools from perceived failure whilst the body which acted in what many see as a precipitate and politically motivated manner, was allowed to run an enquiry into itself. What a surprise, then, that the one group not implicated in its findings was… itself.

This is such meat and drink to conspiracy theorists and knee-jerk respondents of the “how very dare you” variety that it is really another own goal.

Teachers are not “cheats”. The system is poor and the lack of trust given to many teachers to regulate the targets and levels of the students in front of them is shocking. It is time to review the whole system. Not simply to impose another half-cooked curriculum onto teachers who now have no idea what they will be being required to deliver in 2015 since the whole thing is up in the air.

Teachers are not “cheats”. They use the system to its letter and may sometimes push the boundaries to improve the likelihood of a student receiving a particular grade, but not all, and certainly not in an organised plot as implied by the Daily Mail banner (above).

Sadly there seems to be polarisation amongst teachers about this issue – in one corner stands @realgeoffbarton, a Head teacher who has been prepared to put his head over the parapet to argue against the perceived injustice of the treatment of June students who did not achieve the same grades as their January counterparts despite in some cases performing to a higher level. (This argument has led to all WJEC marks in Wales being overturned this year and the January levels utilised.).
In the other corner is @oldandrewuk who is arguing that the whole process is rotten and that there is no point trying to pretend that there are no teachers anywhere behaving like Arthur Daley (showing my age). To name but two colleagues who I follow and read.

The point is not clear cut. From where I stand, there is great unfairness and hence injustice in this June’s grading, but also a strong case for acknowledging that the current exam system is so flawed and the requirements of the league tables so strong, that the whole thing needs an overhaul.

Consider this if you want to in the light of the WoKs:
Emotion- We are not cheats/we are sure that there is an injustice here somewhere.
Reason – Grades are going up, data never lie, There must be an accountable body somewhere
Perception- something is badly wrong with the current system, even if I am not sure what that is
Language – The emotive value of a word like “cheat” can not be overlooked -“OFQUAL find numerous and varied reasons for the increase in marks seen this year in GCSE English CAs” is not a good headline. Or, consider the subjectivity of all mark scheme descriptors and revisit one of the most successful presentations of the last five years.

Now, go and explore – this is where you take over.

A copy of the full OFQUAL report mentioned can be found at the following location, look at it carefully before you attempt this presentation.