Tag Archives: cheating

I Know What We Did This Summer

A shopping centre near me uses a sonic device to discourage certain people from entering. Its whistle is painfully shrill to children and young adults, but as good as inaudible to those in their late twenties and upwards. Given the events at my school this week, I’m tempted to believe that something similar has been installed there.

Over the course of four days, our Year 6 students have been taking the SATs exams that help to determine the school’s position in league tables. These days, such results are also used to identify schools ripe for academisation. Thus, like religious idols, they mark the direction in which all must face. Now that the tests are over, there’s little visible evidence of what passed. The desks have been rearranged, and the stationery that marked places the way cutlery does in restaurants has been returned to drawers and pots. Only the flecks on the carpet remain – sheddings from erasers, dotted across the maroon pile.

There should be no need for rubbers: the exam regulations instruct students to cross out any answers they want disregarded. Still, one was placed on every desk, ‘in case’. In case an adult – a headteacher, say – needed to use one. With unaccustomed punctuality, he appeared in the main exam room on Monday morning, as tautly menacing as an over-coiled spring. Once confident that no external observer had been sent by the DfE, he began to pace and prowl between exam rooms. Invigilator after invigilator was directed unequivocally to ensure that every candidate submitted a completed test paper.

Dealing, as we do, with students whose abilities are diverse, who work at different paces and manage time with variable effect, how was this to be achieved? By telling them the answers. And pointing to correct options on multiple choice questions. And giving students additional time – hours, in some cases – to which they were not entitled. As the last child left the exam room on the first day, the head instructed her to fetch an eraser, while the class teacher was directed to block any sightlines into the room. And so began the removal of wrong answers. Shocked into confusion, the teacher complied for a few seconds before walking away, unwilling to be any more of an accessory.

Thereafter, the erasing took place during the exams. Students, bewildered to find adults at their elbows, scrubbing away at their answer booklets, were summoned to the head’s office to substitute dictated answers. The distress of the invigilators who’d been coerced into acting against their beliefs, was hard to witness; that of the children, even more so. Instead of relief and larks, there was anger that they’d been deprived of the chance to find out what they could do independently; guilt and sadness at having been made to deceive their parents. Some described deliberately messing up answers, to compensate for the unrequested ‘support’.Repeatedly and rightly, they asked me how an institution preaching honesty as a core value, could direct its members to practise the opposite. Though I tried to cobble together an answer in the moment, I admitted defeat on that score. Instead, I emphasised that, as burdensome as guilt is, I was proud of them for feeling it and proving that they still knew right from wrong.

I got away with conducting the exam by the rule-book, by taking my allocated group into my room straight away and ignoring the head glaring at me like Mad-Eye Moody through the window. He didn’t come in, but I’d like to think that, had he told me to cheat, I’d have stood up to him. Having seen and heard my colleagues’ fearful acquiescence, I don’t know for sure that I’d have had the guts to do so, even though I told him otherwise when I met with him to express my anger.

So, to return to my opening scenario, children heard the piercing squeal of wrongdoing while one deafened adult told everyone else to insert earplugs against the noise. Maybe that’s just life, one of those things that we rationalise by telling others to grow a pair and stop being so naive. But it’s also what happens when schools are held to ransom by floor targets, league tables and the prospect of enforced status conversion. And it’s what happens when we fail to stand up to thugs: politicians who distort our professional priorities in the interests of their own (re)electability; local authorities that invite schools to ‘adjust’ their exam results; or headteachers who think their schools exist to service their ambitions, and are not averse to a spot of mutual backscratching with our supposed channels of accountability.

Perhaps there is a place for shrill whistles after all.

Grade Expectations

Back in September, I chalked up the days ‘til I could sleep on the wall behind my desk, and began crossing them off one by one. Now that we’ve arrived at half term, I may be a little ‘stream-of-consciousness’. Or just exceptionally in touch with my inner exhausted old git. Apologies for whichever way it goes.

Uncrossing my eyeballs this morning, I read that an alliance of students, teachers and councils is seeking compensation from an exam board that altered GCSE English grade boundaries part-way through the academic year: thousands of students, who would have scored ‘C’ grades in January, were, consequently, deprived of the same in June. As acts of stupidity go, running off with the goalposts during the match is as good as any. Expect the crowd to get angry, and with reason.

I do, however, find myself itching, Vagisil-style, with embarrassingly intimate guilt at this story and all the righteous (in every sense, not just the perjorative) indignation that has preceded it. When students achieve results that fall short of expectations, we justifiably seek redress by asking for their papers to be re-marked. But how often do we do the same, when marks are unrepresentative in the opposite direction? I know I’m not the only teacher to have been stunned, on occasion, by how far above expectations students I know really well have scored. And, tempting as it might be to attribute this success to my unparalleled and magical teacherly powers, reality directs me to more mundane explanations. Given the sheer number of scripts to be graded in a short time, the inflexibly prescriptive character of some mark schemes, and the qualifications demanded of would-be examiners by some boards (“Are they your own teeth, or on loan from a friend? No matter. Come on in.”), it’s hardly surprising that, sometimes, the marking of exams has been, um, wide of the mark.

I was once stupid enough to suggest, out loud, that overmarked papers should be returned for a second opinion with the same alacrity as the opposite would be. It was unfair, or so my reasoning went, to knowingly send students out into the world with inaccurate ideas of their capabilities – especially given the likelihood of contradiction later on. Furthermore, didn’t we have a responsibility towards the next link in the chain, be it employer, college or university? Unsurprisingly, the response this elicited – some elaborate sentence structures, even harder to follow than mine, punctuated by outraged puffing, even puffier than mine – put paid to that proposal. I’ve since heard it said, by a headteacher of an outstanding school, that we have a moral imperative to allow inaccurately high grades to stand uncorrected in times of austerity. Slapped wrists for me, then.

The counter-argument, wheeled out in one form or another for its annual whizz around the block, is the ‘hard work’ thesis: “I don’t think that exams have got easier because I worked really hard for mine”; “Results are rising because students and teachers are working harder than ever” (yessir: see opening paragraph). And, this summer, “It’s so unfair that students who have worked hard have been deprived of high grades”. Nes and yo. It’s unfair that some students were marked more punitively than others because a change in standards was implemented halfway through a school year. Hard work, in and of itself, is not a reason to award someone a high grade in an exam that’s supposed to be an indicator of subject-specific capability. By that logic, I should be given an award for cartwheeling, even though my effortful attempts to execute said manoeuvre involve me keeping three limbs on the ground and waving the fourth like a distress signal. If hard work deserves to be rewarded, let’s introduce a GCSE – or whatever GCSEs are mutating into – in Hard Work.

Still riffing on the ‘surprising results’ theme (I warned you at the start about the likely effects of sleep deprivation), it has crossed my scrambled egg of a mind that students achieving bafflingly good results may, simply, have cheated in the exams. Or been the beneficiaries of cheating by others. I’ve not seen the inside of an exam hall during the summer for a long time – not because of a court order, but because teachers are barred from invigilating. I usually know when the exam season has begun because the loyal regiment of supervisors, who turn up year after year at those times of year, has arrived again. All of the invigilators I’ve known have been former subject teachers, some of them former employees. Dot, dot, dot. Lucky red envelopes. Exclamation mark.

Which brings me – rocking back and forth by now, with dribble (my own) on my chin – to a certain outstanding academy in South East London that trumpets its own brilliance on its brilliant website, reminding its readers that our brilliant Prime Minister declared it to be brilliant. So it must be true. What it doesn’t have on its website are any details of teachers and pupils blowing the whistle on systematic cheating in exams and coursework. Nor is there anything on the ‘News’ or ‘Articles’ pages about Channel 4 News’ special report on the school, detailing practices such as teachers entering the exam rooms, telling students which questions to correct and moderating coursework in such a way that it seemed as if “numbers were being plucked out of the sky”. An oversight, I assume. Nor is there anything about how the results of the exam boards’ investigation into the school will not be published. I guess the allegations must be untrue.

The website does, however, have lots of stuff about the school’s record-breaking results and lovely buildings. There’s even a pod-like assembly hall that resembles an internal organ. Enough bile, Joe. It’s half term. Get thee to a funnery.

Speaking In Tongues

Way back when, I would use estate agents’ copy to teach my students about euphemism. They’d laugh, with mild shock, at language so elastic that ‘bijou’ denoted a space big enough for your nose hairs to tickle the walls, and ‘characterful’ meant that the local wino had been an unofficial tenant for the past decade. My students would then make up their own examples, recasting a property with broken windows as “possessing a comprehensive system of ventilation ducts”, and another, infested with rats, as “sympathetic to the local ecosystem”. However, I no longer rely on estate agents for stimulus materials because I have some new toys. Stuffed to the seams with code, adverts for teaching jobs are my current favourites.

Pretty much all the schools I see advertising for staff have been found to be outstanding. This could point to several things. Perhaps ‘outstanding’ means something really obvious that I’ve only just twigged, like ‘standing outside’. Which lots of school buildings do, to be fair. Or perhaps outstanding schools tend to have higher staff turnovers: maybe, those working in outstanding schools develop professionally at such speed that they are ready to take on management posts within, ooh, minutes. Or, maybe, outstanding schools are horrible places in which to work, and tend to lose burnt-out staff like a haemophiliac loses blood. I know which one I’d go for.

So, now that there’s nowt outstanding about being outstanding, let’s turn to the other honeyed phrases with which schools try to lure applicants. Boasting about which percentile of the country’s ‘most improved’ they occupy seems to be the latest fad…and, encouragingly, they’re all way up near the top! Now, how did they get there, and what does it take to work in a school like that?

First up, make sure that you’re ‘data-driven’ as in “we are looking for a data-driven candidate who is also an outstanding teacher”. Blimey. You mean there are teachers out there making decisions on the basis of no info whatsoever? I made a point of learning the names of all my students (eventually). Does that make me data driven too? Probably not. It’s numbers they mean – hefty figures called targets that often bear little relation to the actual abilities of the students around whose necks they are hung. And, because they are The Law Before Which We All Genuflect, you, oh applicant, would do well to regard the students in your care as statistics unhappily trapped inside human bodies, and desperate to be liberated. So, cajole them, plead with them, bribe them and, if that fails, do the work for them. Anything less is, frankly, unprofessional and not what’s expected of a “team player”. You may not have known it, but you’ve been training for Mendacity United, and your call-up from the subs’ bench may be imminent.

The ads also tell us that many schools are on “a journey of year-on-year improvement”, so that en route at least 267.5% of their students will leave bearing teetering stacks of GCSEs. You can tell these places are on the move, because they always seem to be seeking candidates “willing to go the extra mile” (who knew that nomadism was so ‘in’ this season?). This is a little misleading. As you will discover, what with Oz always being a further mile away, you will have to (deep breath) cajole your students plead with them bribe them and if that fails do the work for them. Anything less is unprofessional. Plus, you did tell them that you’re a team player and you may have nodded eagerly when they spoke about their culture of “additionality” (eh?). Some schools, however, may be a little more blatant about their expectations, requiring candidates to do “whatever it takes” to ensure that The Law Before Which We All Genuflect is not broken.

So, finally, we come to my favourite: the school with a “no excuses culture”. I have no real idea what this means. For whom, pray, are there no excuses? I know that in some schools, students have no recourse to excuses – which is why one who had been thrown out of home and had been sleeping on park benches was excluded for missing an assignment deadline.  But staff may also have to abide by the new rules – perhaps in schools where there is no excuse not to cajolethempleadwiththembribethemandifthatfailsdotheworkforthem. Or, indeed, to simply cut out the middlemen and go straight to the ‘do the work for them’ bit. I’m still confused. Although I do understand that ‘no excuses’ is an excuse.

Anyhow, I no longer need worry about this stuff. Ascending to the deoxygenated heights of the upper pay scale banged some monster-sized nails into the coffin of my future employability; so I’m staying put where I am, until such time as it becomes intolerable, or I am deemed sackable. Whichever happens first. But for aspiring and viable employees, forewarned may be forearmed: dishonesty has been normalised in schools, so those of you able to turn a blind eye, swallow your moral qualms or perform other feats that will rearrange your organs are well-placed to thrive. Independent learning be hanged: guaranteed short cuts to fab grades are part of the cultural weft. I just wonder when the edges will start to fray.

Happy job-hunting.

Outclassing The Opposition

The pleasure I take in watching Outnumbered is not simply the schadenfreude of the childless, sniggering as knackered parents pretend it was always part of The Grand Plan for their offspring to run rings around them. For, as well as being an object of pity/envy for fertile friends, who watch the programme through their fingers, I’m also a teacher. And in Outnumbered’s depiction of my profession, I think we have one of the most trenchant critiques of education policy around.

It all started innocuously enough in the first series, with Pete being forced to apologise (sorry, pen a “statement of regret”) for observing that a fat pupil was fat. A subplot that involves treading on linguistic eggsshells could be set in any number of professional environments. The asymmetry of power between young and less-young, however, is specific to schools, evoking a ‘safeguarding’ contract I and my colleagues were invited to sign, pledging to never, ever, use sarcasm – dark or otherwise – in the classroom. Unwilling to relinquish the key weapon in my disciplinary arsenal, I, for one, did not put my thumbprint on the dotted line.

The suspicion that Outnumbered’s writers were receiving secret dispatches from the interactive whiteboard was properly aroused by the next series, in which the headteacher (apologies again –“Senior Education Provider”) became an on-screen character, advocating “syllabus synchronicity” and “360 degree education”. Taking shots at the slavish mimicry of jargon is easy (mea culpa). It’s the programme’s willingness to poke its nose, while others pretend they can’t smell a thing, that has me snorting into the sofa cushions – at the school’s suggestion that young Ben take the day off school when the Ofsted inspectors were coming, for instance.

Cast your minds back to Pete’s interview for the Head of History post, at the end of which the Senior Education Provider invited him to demonstrate his commitment to the school, by removing “anomalous” (i.e. crap) Year 9 results from its prospectus. To the uninitiated viewer, this may have seemed like dramatic licence. But I can’t have been the only teacher to have seen in this a frighteningly accurate rendition of the smoke-and-mirrors tactics now practiced by schools cowering under relentless targets and league tabling. Not to mention headteacherly ambition. With courses available on (I quote) ‘Managing the Public Perception of Your School’, life is imitated by sit-com – not only its depiction of education’s creative accounting, but also the dark art of spin that has become an integral feature of school leadership.

Which brings me to the latest series’ revelations from the staffroom. We now find Pete sans travail, having: a) reported a junior colleague’s unprofessional conduct; b) issued the principal with a choice between  Pete-brand integrity and the colleague’s lack thereof; and c) found that the colleague’s lack thereof was vastly preferable. And so, Pete’s resignation is requested and accepted with almost unseemly haste. Here the writers have hit a particularly rich seam – one potentially replete with nuggets of which most non-teachers are unaware, and with which politicians have been oddly reluctant to engage.

As Pete has found to his cost, teachers are ill-advised to take on less-experienced colleagues these days. Not because the latter occupy higher ground, morally or intellectually; nor because it would be a shame to blight their nascent careers. The crucial point is that, by dint of having less experience, recently-qualified staff  are at lower points on the salary scale and, on the whole, more manipulable. Cheap and malleable is a devastatingly attractive combination to dangle before penny-wise-pound-foolish heads, under pressure to somehow produce continuous improvements in results, within increasingly limited budgets.. Hence the barely-reported phenomenon of teachers who are highly-qualified, highly experienced, highly professional… and virtually unemployable for the above reasons.

Take the case of Feroze, who used to head the Art department at a south London school. With an excellent track record, she was surprised to find that reporting a junior colleague, for passing off his own work as that of his students, resulted in her being placed on capability procedures by a senior education provider who was intensely relaxed with cheating his school to the top of the local league table. Promoting staff whose long, dark nights of the soul were similarly comparable to those in an Arctic summer was clearly the way to go. One cycle of capability procedures can be nerve-shredding; Feroze was subjected to four in succession. Broken by the experience, she resigned and was promptly replaced as departmental head by the junior colleague who thought ‘teach’ was an anagram. The kids get the grades, the school is praised and the head comes to the notice of whoever for presiding over its apparent transformation – and all at a rock-bottom price. What’s not to like?

The teachers needed to guide the recently-qualified, and be the steady hands steering the new breed of teaching schools Michael Gove favours, are precisely the experienced ones who have been left scrabbling around for morsels of supply work by such unscrupulous heads: teachers like Feroze and her sit-com counterpart, Pete Brockman. Meanwhile, the very green and noisily ambitious sail relatively untouched through the storms, rightly confident that they’ll be appointed to responsibility posts – including those requiring “substantial experience” – over their costlier competitors. If they graduate from the educational Sandhurst that is Teach First, they can expect to be fast-tracked to headship with minimal time having been spent at the front.

Forget Waterloo Road, which is about as penetrating of education policy as a sponge needle. Look instead, perhaps, to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which J.K. Rowling lampoons New Labour’s obsession with centralised diktat through the odious Dolores Umbridge. But, most of all, look to Outnumbered which has, arguably, provided us with the opposition that The Opposition fails to provide.