Are independent schools cheating or ‘gaming the system’? UPDATE: National Reference Test a ‘scandal’

On Friday, Schools Week revealed something very surprising about independent schools with the exclusive ‘Ofqual won’t be able to explain private school grades boost’.

It appears that none were included in the ‘National Reference Test (NRT) 2021’ carried out recently for Ofqual by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).  The NRT has been conducted annually across schools since 2017 and used by Ofqual to “support the awarding of GCSEs in England”. The test on students aged 15 to 16, covers English and Mathematics and is used to calibrate standards for GCSEs.  It emerged as a valuable way to gauge learning loss in 2021.  However, it could also be a means to determine if independent schools really had improved more than other schools as results this year suggest. The gap in GCSE and A-level examination results between independent schools and the rest widened alarmingly this summer. So much so that suspicions were aroused about how this could come about. Now the revelation that independent schools were not included in a reference test to gauge standards at GCSE adds further to the ‘fishy smell’ surrounding the results. It appears independent schools were not to be part of any useful checks on standards. They could carry on regardless. The chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, Caroline Derbyshire, complained that the gap was a “scandal” and “It may well have widened not because students in independent schools achieved more, but because their schools awarded more high grades and they did not fear the consequences of doing so.”

NFER makes it clear that the test “will indicate if, over several years, there is a change in how students perform at the national level, which exam boards can then consider during awarding”.  It is “designed to be nationally representative of the secondary school population”.

It must come as a surprise to all of those involved that independent schools were not included. The suggestion that independent schools “may have had less resource to carry out the test in the context of the pandemic” is frankly absurd and the revelation is not good for the authority of Ofqual. The NRT is a statutory requirement by legislation for all selected schools funded through the state, including academies, maintained schools, and free schools.  It is high time such tests were compulsory and imposed upon independent schools in the same way. Otherwise, it seems to smack of one rule for some, who can operate in the shadows, and another for the rest in full daylight.

Original posting from 23rd August 2021

This is the question in the minds of keen observers of the school examinations in the wake of the recent results. Although the evidence for ‘cheating’ being widespread is simply not there, there is consensus across various media outlets that the examinations results do not seem quite right.  This is fuelled especially by a clear and widening gap between the results of students in independent schools and the rest. It will have crossed the minds of everyone not associated with independent schools that something suspicious is happening, even the idea that they might be ‘cheating’ or ‘gaming’ in some way.  Last week, TEFS called for an inquiry into what happened with the A-level qualifications. This call now extends to GCSEs.   There are many reasons why students with advantages at independent schools tend to do better than their less well-off peers. Gaming the system, or simple ‘cheating’ may be a factor. However, this has not been established since the checks by the examination boards and the government regulator, Ofqual,  may not have been able to detect the full picture. There is an urgent need to get to the bottom of what has happened if there is to be any confidence in the fairness of the education system.

The old joke about the Ireland rugby team in the 1970s, meeting in a bar in Dublin before their match with England, comes to mind. One of the team rushes in with the news that he has seen the England team ‘cheating’, “They have been practising” he declares.  But is this cheating? That depends on your view of what is cheating.  Gaining an advantage by practising is fine in most eyes. On the other hand, could the Ireland team have cheated by spying on England players when practising? That is another view. Incidentally, the record for internationals in the 1970s was six to four in favour of Ireland.

It follows that ‘cheating’ can be seen in different ways depending on the viewpoint. Independent schools with smaller classes, more resources and greater one-to-one teaching are more likely to achieve better results and gain the full potential of their students. Add good home resources, even private tutors, and it makes for a better outcome. Larger classes and poor living conditions are less likely to yield optimal results. Could the result be a simple manifestation of an examination system that tests the quality of teaching and the schools rather than the students and their ability and attainment? The 2021 results tend to suggest this is the case and a radical overhaul is needed.

Not every child gets a good start.

It is generally accepted that most parents want to get the full potential from their children’s education. However, this is only an assumption viewed by those from a more advantaged position. The reality is that many children are neglected, and their education is of lesser importance. The latest release from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) ‘Child neglect in England and Wales: year ending March 2019’ shows the situation before the pandemic. The pandemic probably made things worse. The ONS noted that 481,000 adults reported “physical neglect” as a child. This includes “being taken care of or not having enough food, shelter or clothing, but it does not cover all types of neglect”.  However, lack of support and resources for education is not included in this measure. It follows that many more children are unseen and held back by a lack of resources and little parental support.

The hope is that the government fund, called the ‘Pupil Premium’ in England, fills some of the resource deficit. It could be argued that this is not enough, but things would be far worse without it. However, this idea has not deterred the government from making cuts over time that are deeper in the less advantaged schools.  Reporting results from FFT Education Datalab (‘How much Pupil Premium funding have schools missed out on?’) at the end of July 2021, Schools Week  revealed that ‘Study finds pupil premium cuts £43m worse than DfE admits’.  This was a devious ‘sleight of hand’ with funds now calculated on the number of free school meal (FSM) pupils the schools had in October, rather than January as previously. This had a major effect in terms of cuts (‘Pupil premium funding change: How much will your area lose? Schools Week’ 23rd April 2021).  

Government data from this year ‘Schools, pupils and their characteristics, Academic Year 2020/21’ shows that 20.8% of school students are now eligible for free school meals. This is around 1.74 million and is a sharp rise from 17.3% in 2020. It is stated that “Over 420,000 pupils have become eligible for free school meals since the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. This compares to 292,000 for the same period (March 2019 to Jan 2020) before the pandemic”.

The overall result will be to widen the attainment gap and further exacerbate already unfair advantages for better off students. The idea that this is ‘levelling up’ relegates the policy to the status of ‘double speak’.

Class sizes.

Parents investing in independent schools are primarily buying into greater resources in terms of more teachers and smaller class sizes. This is not ‘cheating’ in the strict sense of the word, but it could easily be seen as ‘gaming the system’. The examination results over time show that the tactic works for most school students involved.

But how great is the class size advantage?  This is not so easy to answer using UK government statistics.  The latest, Schools, pupils and their characteristics, Academic Year 2020/21 shows there are 8,911,853  pupils across  24,400 schools in England, including independent schools. The average class size is noted as 26.6, down slightly from 26.9 last year. There are 569,400 (6.38%) pupils in independent schools, but the data on class sizes in independent schools is hard to assess. This is because the released data only lists state-funded schools.  By using the same data release, Figure 1 shows the distribution of class sizes across state funded secondary schools only. The results are alarming with a sizeable proportion of classes well over 30 students. The mean class size is 28 students (+/- 10.5) with 37% of 30 or more students.

The question then arises about the situation in independent schools.  The ‘Independent schools council ISC Annual Census  2021’ boasts an impressive service. Their stated pupil teacher ratio for their schools covering 532,237 students is currently 8.9. The majority (91%) go onto higher education with 54%, going to a “Top 25 university” that includes 5% who go on to study at Oxford or Cambridge. This selling pitch is hard to ignore.

Another source of information is OECD latest data for 2019 that offers broad agreement with the figures above.  But with the number of schools students rising fast to beyond 2030, this disparity can only get worse if there is not enough investment in teachers and facilities (National pupil projections July 2021). The OECD puts class sizes in independent schools in the UK at 11.9 and state funded schools at 24.4.  The advantages inherent in this difference are clear. Add the wide distribution of class sizes in state schools and it seems some are almost catastrophically disadvantaged.

Parental pressure.

It follows that an examination system that rewards attainment is bound to favour students with more resources and better family support. Those families with plenty of resource to deploy opt for smaller classes in independent schools. The results are somewhat staggering and can be seen in the advisory service ‘Best Schools’ ‘Top 100 Independent Schools by A Levels and Pre U’. If a school is falling down this list, or individual students are not doing as well as expected, then they can expect a considerable amount of parental pressure. The pandemic examination arrangements can only have increased this as teachers took on more responsibility for the results.

Another factor rears its head as parents push for better results. Many successful people assume that they and their children are inherently superior to the rest. This is a view that is held at the top of the government, and especially the prime minister. In proposing that “inequality is essential for the spirit of envy” in a speech back in 2013 he stressed that “I do not believe that economic equality is possible” citing IQ as the main reason. He stressed that the economy is operating on “human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth”.video of the complete speech is available on the Centre for Policy Studies www site and here is a link to the full text  (see TEFS 9th December 2019  ‘It’s all about equality, Brexit, the environment and the economy, not envy and greed’)

It follows from this belief that poor results must be the fault of the school alone. Zoe Williams in The Guardian (11th August 2021) recently set out this scene well with ‘This year’s A-level results will only exacerbate existing inequality’. The events described in this paragraph must have been played out many times since 1992.

Here’s a line in Edwina Currie’s Diaries, volume two; it’s August 1992 and her luckless daughter has just flunked her A-levels. “Denstone,” Currie writes of the Staffordshire independent school, “has a lot to answer for.” It stuck in my mind at the time because it was rare, then, to hear that viewpoint so baldly expressed, that when you pay for a private school, you’re buying grades, and if those grades don’t materialise, the school has ripped you off’.

What teachers say.

The force of paying parents is a powerful influence at the best of times and could be overwhelming in the current situation. TES conducted a valuable poll in the run up to the examinations this year to quantify the extent of the problem. ‘Exclusive: Parents push teachers to raise GCSE grades’ was reported in June.

The survey of over 2,800 teachers showed that as many as 25% reported parents had put pressure on them to raise students’ grades, or to change the evidence going towards their teacher-assessed GCSE and A-level grades. To add to this, over 30%, reported pressure from students.

It seems all types of school were affected by this but with independent schools being pushed much more.  Of the 480 independent schoolteachers, 34% said they were under parental pressure to change grades. In contrast this was 24% for state schoolteachers.

Although most said they did not cave into the pressure it is worrying that 2% of teachers admitted to “giving in” to parent or student pressure. This is concerning and maybe every case should have been reported to the examination boards and Ofqual to serve as a deterrent.

Quality checks were carried out.

Ofqual were aware of the need to check the assessments being made in the light of the likely pressure put on schools by parents. They published their ‘Summer 2021 results analysis and quality assurance’  for GCSE and A levels last week and stated that “irrespective of the type of school or college, the grades were largely supported by the quality of students’ work”.  In a sense it seems Ofqual and the examination boards put in place a series of checks that hopefully would dissuade schools from making excessive adjustments and essentially ‘cheating’. However, the process could only go so far given the types of ‘in school’ assessment in play.

The policies of every school were checked first, and it was assumed the schools adhered to the process they had declared. There were then checks by the examination boards of the students’ work to see it matched the grades awarded. This also included “that the grades submitted for their entries this year looked unusual compared to those in previous years, or concerns about potential malpractice”. Just in case, schools had to be ready for random checks at short notice.

Ofqual note that about 20% of schools and colleges in England from a total of 1,101 were checked this way. Independent schools were included, however there is no breakdown revealed about how many. It is odd that actual numbers were not stated, but this must be around 220 schools in total subjected to checks. Of these, 5% (or around 33) were “subject to further scrutiny” and in some cases revised grades submitted. But it seems results were withheld from “small number of centres” due to ongoing concerns.

With such a sharp uplift in high marks at both A-level and GCSE, there must have been investigations of the results from independent schools. However, this is not clear at this point. The process will have to work its way through in time and Ofqual will publish further details later in 2021.

My experience of ‘cheating’ and teaching to the exam.

I sat an A-level Biology practical examination at a local university back in 1972. Yes, that is how it was done then. A group of us got chatting to girls from an independent school over coffee as we waited for the start. They were looking over notes and were genuinely surprised that we did not know the exam questions in advance. They told us what to expect and were well prepared. It turned out they were right. We were essentially working in the dark while they had been issued with a ‘map and a torch’. It should have been investigated but nothing happened. I wondered how often this was happening and if we were being set a much higher hurdle to jump.  But even if a teacher did not tell the students the actual questions, it would be easy to teach precisely to the examination with no chance of being detected by the examination boards or Ofqual. It follows that the security of the examinations must be at the centre of a fair examination process. If that is compromised, then it invalidates the whole system with one stroke.  I have always assumed that these things are not widespread and carefully guarded against, but like many people, I have a niggling doubt.

Moving the goal posts.

One way for independent schools to gain control of the examinations process has been to simply set up their own alternative to A-levels. Oxford and Cambridge universities have used their own entrance examinations for many years. However, more widely applicable examinations called Cambridge Pre-U examinations have been used since 2008. These examinations are not widely known yet Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), administers them as an alternative to A-levels. They have been popular amongst many independent schools.

By 2017, the whole edifice of these alternative examinations came crashing down. Instances of examination papers leaking to students were widely reported across various media outlets. One teacher at Eton  was singled out in a report, ‘Eton teacher leaves school after ‘breach of exam security’ The Guardian 25th August 2017. More was to follow with ‘Eton pupils’ marks disallowed over second exam paper leak’ The Guardian’ 30th August 2021.

With the media on the scent, Winchester School was drawn into the scandal with another leaked paper. It appeared that the leaked Winchester paper was even circulating amongst students at Eton. Both teachers involved also worked for the CIE and had inside information. Allowing the papers to leak was incredibly stupid when they simply had to teach to the exam. 

The Morning Star was quick to seek more answers with a Freedom of Information request to Ofqual (‘The ‘Pre-U’ scandal’ Morning Star’). The results were alarming with Ofqual admitting the Pre-U examinations were not regulated to the same degree as A-levels. They do “set rules that apply to all awarding bodies and all regulated qualifications, including the Pre-U”.  But they admitted there are “additional rules for A-Levels” as they, unlike Pre-Us, are “National qualifications, based on content set by the government.”

By September, the Financial Times reported on the whole sorry affair with ‘The rigged crapshoot of top exam grades’. Ouch!

In November 2019 CIE announced that they were shutting down the Pre-U examinations with the last resits due in 2024. Not a moment too soon.

We should expect better.

There is no doubt that the system is flawed and biased. The Pre-U examinations should never have been allowed to flourish. Now questions need to be asked about the role of independent schoolteachers in the Ofqual regulated examination boards.

One wonders where the government recently got the idea of letting students see A-level and GCSE students test papers before they take them. This has been described as a “car crash” plan (‘A-level and GCSE students will be able to see test papers in advance’ The Telegraph 17th March 2021). Perhaps it seemed familiar in some way to those in power.

However, this is not a solution to be taken seriously. The impact of unfairness is stark and real for those at the wrong end of the system. A detailed report from the Centre for Social Justice back in February 2020,  ‘The Third Degree – Re-examining fair access to higher education’, might have been lost in the COVID-19 mists, but the problems will not go away so easily.  More funding and better rewards for universities improving widening access are recommended. They also observe that there is evidence that the current “predicted grades system stunts disadvantaged pupils’ prospects. High-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be under predicted than high-achieving peers from better-off backgrounds”.  But, moving to post qualification admission to university will not eliminate much deeper issues with the system. Something much more radical is needed using a wider evidence base than single final examinations (see TEFS 15th January 2021 ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’). Returning to the old ways is no longer an option.

Leave a Reply