The Empire Strikes Back: Ofqual, and the omnishambles of assessment

The edu-interwebs were crackling with fury this morning. Glenys Stacey, Head of Ofqual, has published her report into this season's controversial GCSE results, where accusations of dumbing down and political expediency have been volleyed back and forth across the net. Ofqual's response has been the equivalent of two neighbours arguing about each others' dogs, and one of them goes, 'Ah, but you've been burying postmen under your patio!' Ladies and gentlemen, this hoe-down just got interesting again. The claim, in summary, is this: some teachers in some schools have been routinely over-marking coursework in an effort to obtain higher grades. My poor iPhone nearly melted through Earth's crust when I turned it on; the most common response was that of 'teacher bashing.'

Let's take a closer look at that. What did she actually say?

"Children have been let down. That won't do. It's clear that children are increasingly spending too much time jumping through hoops rather than learning the real skills they need in life," said Stacey. "Teachers feel under enormous pressure in English, more than in any other subject, and we have seen that too often, this is pushing them to the limit."

This is clearly the kind of retaliation Sean Connery would have advocated in the Untouchables- 'One of them pulls a knife, you pull a gun; they put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue.' This is a damn-your-eyes, balls-out, attack-as-defence come back, make no mistake. But to be fair, it isn't naked teacher bashing; in fact, it sounded more like an attack on the system inside which teachers operate than a direct claim that teachers are shifty.

And let's be clear: the system has been shifty; it was designed, if anyone can't see it, to facilitate and encourage systematic grade manipulation, for the following reasons- if you create a high stakes school assessment facility, where the metric of 5 A*-C becomes the sole difference between damnation and salvation AND you simultaneously provide the participants of that system with the means by which they can avoid the former by fair means or foul, then, as any economist will tell you, you have created a fertile plain upon which manipulation can occur.

I have heard some people describe this as 'not cheating', because it is within the regulations; that because it is permitted by guidelines, it is therefore just. I can think of few things more depressing than people doing something they know to be wrong and calling it right because the law permits it: see adultery for details. It is cheating. To give a pupil a higher grade in the school-entered component of a GCSE in order for that student to obtain the magic C, is cheating.

I'll tell you what else has been immoral- targeting borderline C/D students. In what world, other than one obsessed with 5 A*-C, would schools target only students who will obtain a benefit to the school? I'll tell you who I target- ALL my kids, because they all deserve an education, and to do the best for themselves, not because my grades look groovy. The message anything else sends is: are you stupid? Then we don't care about you- you're a lost cause. Are you bright? Good luck, we don't give a damn about you either, thanks for the C. It's educational apartheid, and children become instrumental to the school's interests. I didn't come into the profession to make schools look good.

Course work is a rotten system of assessment for academic subjects- even if only a few schools practice the dark arts, through a process of Darwinian competition, pressure rises on other schools to do the same. To quote Hobbes, 'It only takes one thief for all men to bar their windows.' Or to inflate. Such is the damning legacy of a one-dimensional metric like league tables.

I have heard people bluster, 'Oh, how can you say teachers would do that- we're better than that.' That is unbearably naive. In a system designed to reward only the winners, it is inevitable that the rot of inflation sets in. And let's not forget that grade inflation is a fact accepted by all parties, and by Ofqual itself. Unless you believe that teachers are made of finer moral material than the majority of people- and I don't; we are human- then you cannot imagine that teachers are not just as subject to the vices of the human condition as much as the virtues. Even if you did believe such a thing, competition to achieve would drive many to sin.

So quite apart from the separate issue of the fairness or otherwise of the June boundaries, what Stacey is saying is correct: coursework and 'controlled' assessments (aye, there's an oxymoron) are some of the worst ways to obtain a fair result in examination. The alternatives are imperfect, but less than these. Having work marked by class teachers also results in one of the worst possible detriments to the principle of fairness: partiality. The subconscious temptation to mark according to what you already think of a student, is well documented by research- which raises all sorts of discriminatory issues.

One final point; while I agree broadly with Stacey on this point, isn't it odd that, back in May of last year, she was complaining about the term 'Grade Inflation'? I blogged about it here, when she said:

"I don't find 'grade inflation' to be a very helpful expression," she says.  'Inflation' has a negative import whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard."

Has she been converted, like Malcolm X in his cell? It seems like she now concedes there might well have been inflation, 'unhelpful' or not. But we need to keep these two issues separate- the GCSE results controversy, and coursework/ CA manipulation, and not pretend that the moral ambiguity of one cancels out the other. If we as a profession cannot condemn bad practice when we see it, then we will never learn, and improve. It behooves those of us who disagree with a system that encourages cheating, and the cheating itself, to say so.


  1. Best thing I've seen on this issue. Great stuff.

  2. Is this conversation familiar to anyone?
    TEACHER: You'll have to do another piece of coursework [almost everyone where I worked still called CA coursework, bit like the older generation still having Baker days]
    PUPIL: Can't I just re-do this one?
    TEACHER: No, it's against the rules.
    PUPIL: Oh but all my other teachers let me re-do them to make them better.
    PUPIL goes of in a huff muttering that they will get their other teacher of that subject to let them re-do the work - the joy of shared classes.

    1. I imagine that might resonate with a few people...

  3. Controlled Assessments have been the most appalling waste of everyone's time. They take ages to prepare for; the tasks are nonsense; the students actually learn very little in preparing for them; teachers spend ages chasing up students who were absent and on top of this you have the temptation/incentive/coercion for teachers to cheat/game/bend rules.

    Scrap them tomorrow and you'll hear a collective sigh of relief. Scrap the 5A*-C measure of success tomorrow and and I might organise a parade.

    Good work as ever Tom.

    1. I couldn't agree more Sir. Thanks

    2. Agreed.
      Now, can we do anything about it? No. If you go to Ofqual with your complaints they just have some duty desk person give you some boilerplate guff: 'Educational needs…bla bla….special skills…bla bla…' You don't have anyone at that place that knows anything. Trust me. I got invited to attend a meeting there once. Place is crawling with people who were trained to do something completely different, or…are just genial dunces.

    3. Agreed.
      Now, can we do anything about it? No. If you go to Ofqual with your complaints they just have some duty desk person give you some boilerplate guff: 'Educational needs…bla bla….special skills…bla bla…' You don't have anyone at that place that knows anything. Trust me. I got invited to attend a meeting there once. Place is crawling with people who were trained to do something completely different, or…are just genial dunces.

  4. 1. Doesn't AQA employ Moderators? Teacher marks are not just fed straight into computers.
    I'm a Principal Moderator in History. Big samples of work are seen and checked by Moderators, who have full power to reduce marks if they're too high (or even, in a few cases each year, raise them). If they did not do that job properly for AQA English last summer, then that's AQA's fault, not the Teacher-markers.
    2. As we approach Gove's 100% final assessment EBCs, I cannot accept that "coursework is a rotten system". 3-hour exams better? There are types of very worthwhile study, certainly in History, but surely in English, Geography and probably other subjects, which will disappear, further narrowing our curriculum.
    It's the function of exams to assess the course, not determine its very nature.

    1. 1. I think the moderators are blameless; I used to mark for 'a big company' and we just followed the direction on marks given, etc, and moderators followed their own directions from the chair. But while moderating is good at spotting large divergences in scores, the worst kind of manipulation occurs at the C/D boundary, when students get propped up by a mark here and a mark there to achieve. And that's far, far harder to eliminate through moderation.
      2. Coursework may well be the best option in some subjects- practical ones, for example. But for the traditional 'academic' avenues, it's poison.

      Thanks for posting

  5. In summary, then:
    Stacey was NOT teacher bashing.
    But teachers have cheated and been immoral.
    Furthermore in relation to grade inflation, Stacey was wrong and Tom was right.

  6. 1. Absolutely
    2. Some have; conflating some with all is one of the ways in which the debate is oversimplified by the media
    3. I should bleedin' say so. Actually, eventually she was right.

  7. My biggest problem has been this:
    If some teachers in some schools have been awarding marks which are too high, why have all students in all schools had their results monkeyed about with in order to offset this?

    I looked at Old Andrew's list of ways to cheat, and I can categorically state I have never done any of them. Yet my students did get hit by this. You are quite right that the GCSE fiasco and the CA manipulation are separate issues, but Ofqual is now justifying the former because of the latter. The official investigation conflates the issues and solves nothing, but it does entrench the decision that all students have to suffer due to the actions of some teachers. Fairness goes out the window.

    I think your rallying cry at the end should be the standard to go forward with, with one addition: "It behooves those of us who disagree with a system that encourages cheating, and the cheating itself, to say so and not to condone that cheating by participating in it".

    I saw too many of the Edutwitterati this morning claiming that they always knew this to be the case, that they had always said that this was the problem with the system, yet glibly stated that they had gone along with it anyway.

    1. Sadly I also saw many teachers try to defend it, as if it were 'just the dirty way we have to do it.' I suspect no one outside of education would see it that way. Thanks for the comment.

  8. Coursework at GCSE was abolished because it was such a temptation for parents to cheat (either by rewriting their offspring's work or by hiring tutors who would do it). Controlled assessment simply shifted the locus of cheating from parent to teacher. I teach English, and don't know a single colleague (in my school or elsewhere) who wouldn't heave a huge sigh of relief were it to be abolished tomorrow.

  9. As a teacher of AQA History GCSE till last year I find the previous comment on it naive. It is as rotten as the rest and I was hugely relieved to move to IGCSE and ditch it.

  10. Getting rid of CA would do more to solve the problem of teachers' excessive workload than any other measure. I can't wait.

  11. We have a system where no one is accountable, but everyone just barely puts their head above the parapet, takes a potshot, then hunkers down. Do we have a state school out there who says 'Enough is enough! We are not doing this anymore.' or even just publicly putting out statements about the uselessness of some CA's? No.
    Ofqual will die for the status quo, anything to avoid making any decisions. Much easier to be a windy bloated think tank than a feisty nimble regulator. So they do nothing.
    Gove takes a shot, but he's all over the place, and contradicts himself.
    Dept of Education? Hah! They want a permission slip just to fart in the parking lot. You ask them a question, they give you the answer to a different question. it's a cagey time-honored bureaucratic tradition.
    Education Select Committee. Talk talk talk. Bunch of do-nothings.
    We have no hope.

    I just rec'd my last reply from Ofqual regarding why my daughter took Heat magazine and Britain's Got Talent as CA for English Language. I complained it didn't meet the National Curriclum standards, nor their own policy standards. They just made stuff up. THEY MADE STUFF UP. They will not do anything. Ever.


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