GCSE exam paper withdrawn as examiners tip off teachers

As published by Guardian.co.uk

Examiners shared “inappropriate” information about a GCSE paper due to be taken by pupils in January, the exams regulator has warned.

Ofqual says an information and communications technology (ICT) paper set by the WJEC exam board was compromised, and will be withdrawn to protect the “integrity and security” of the qualification.

The finding was included in a report ordered by ministers into allegations that examiners had been tipping off teachers about the questions their pupils should expect.

The Daily Telegraph sent undercover reporters to 13 seminars run for teachers by exam boards.

The newspaper has handed over 52 hours of audio recording to the regulator, as well as rough transcripts of excerpts from this recording.

Teachers were routinely given information about future questions, relevant areas of the syllabus, and specific words or facts to use in answers, the Daily Telegraph claimed.

However, Ofqual says in its preliminary report, published on Wednesday: “Although there are instances where the evidence reviewed to date backs up some of the allegations, most of the material we have reviewed does not show such unacceptable practice.”

At a WJEC seminar about the GCSE in ICT, attendees were told which areas would be assessed, Ofqual said.

The report says: “This is in clear breach of regulatory requirements, and it compromises the planned exam.”

Around 450 candidates were due to sit the paper. This will be withdrawn and sat at a later date.

A key part of the newspaper’s investigation was the WJEC GCSE in history. No papers for this subject are being sat in January and Ofqual says it will investigate this when it has completed work on January exams.

The exams watchdog said it had considered banning seminars, but feared this would leave the market open to unregulated providers.

Ofqual’s report said: “We want to consider again the legitimate purposes of seminars, and the regulated and unregulated market in them. We want to consider whether the legitimate purposes of seminars are best met by seminars, or in some other way.”

The exam board Edexcel said in a statement: “We are clear that awarding organisations can and must improve the way that training sessions are conducted and have made a public commitment to do that in very practical ways.”

The exam regulator published a separate report on 12 errors in A-level and GCSE exam papers this summer.

It recommended that exam boards should consider using teams of examiners to write papers rather than a single chief examiner.

The report said: “In some instances where errors occurred, the awarding organisation had concerns about the principal examiner’s question paper drafting skills, but the examiner was nevertheless asked to see the paper through to print.

“This is clearly risky, but awarding organisations point out there is not always a ready supply of suitably qualified people who will commit the necessary time to serve as an examiner.”

The exams watchdog said the “overall view” of schools, colleges and students was that candidates got the right grades.

Ofqual said it could not say whether the errors in 2011 exam papers represented an “unusual change” in the number of mistakes year on year.

“What we can say is that together, the number and nature of errors this year was unacceptable.”

Dr Jim Sinclair, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said: “The examinations system is huge, with awarding bodies setting over 60,000 examination questions and over 50,000 examiners marking over 25m separate examination scripts. Although the number of errors was small, it is clear there were too many and this is regretted by the awarding bodies.”

Michael Gove, the education secretary, said that exam boards had “overstepped the mark” in providing advance information to teachers. When overhauling GCSEs and A-levels, ministers will seek to ensure there is sufficient “unpredictability” to maintain public confidence that exams are a true test of ability.

He said he did not rule out “large-scale reform” of exam boards.

In a letter to Ofqual, Gove said: “I am clear, and the public reaction proves, that they have overstepped the mark on what is felt to be an acceptable level of advance information.

“Providing teachers and students with too much certainty over which elements of the curriculum will be tested, or which questions will be asked, only serves to narrow the curriculum, lower standards and promote teaching to the test.”

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