Category Archives: Sec Ed

Exams – are we too open with teachers?

I began examining – English Lang and Lit – in the early days of what became 10 years out of the classroom, raising a family.

I was able to mark when babies slept, and 300 or 400 scripts were actually easier to squeeze into three weeks then than they were when I was back in the classroom.

The experience helped me get back: I’d kept my hand in while officially “out”, I was up to speed on what examiners were looking for. Indeed, when I joined schools doing exams I had not taught before, I examined for the street-cred in the new staffroom.

I believed examining made me really useful to both colleagues and candidates, like a veteran coming back from the trenches. For instance, I had been firmly reprimanded for once saying of a thin last answer on an otherwise very strong paper that this was a good candidate but a poor time-keeper, so he deserved some leniency on this last answer.

Wrong. As the chief examiner pointed out, I knew nothing about the candidate or his knowledge of the books. Maybe he had written all he could recall on the last book, then twiddled his thumbs till time was up. No leniency. Mark what’s on the page. Back in school, we devised a blanket rule for examinees – give each question equal time; but if you slip up, answer the last question with as many bullet points as you can.

You may say such advice was common sense. But you teach in a world where exam boards have for years been telling you exactly what to tell every student, whereas I began my career in a world where exam boards were akin to MI5 in their secrecy. Giving them what they wanted was educated guesswork. In my early – and even middle – career, no-one knew quite what examiners wanted unless they had been an examiner.

In the olden days, most of us trawled the last few years’ papers to try to second-guess examiners. If madness in Macbeth came up last year, it was unlikely this year. Every now and then, you came a cropper, and suspected pure mischief on the part of the exam setter: a GCE O level question asking for a thorough discussion of the Porter’s scene (all of two pages in our text) reduced some of my candidates to tears.

You work in a time when candidates expect you to prepare them very thoroughly not just on your subject, but also on the exam. I saw yesterday a poster in a school which declared that 50 per cent of exam success was in exam technique, only 30 per cent depended on knowledge of subject. What do the examiners want? What points will get the marks? And since exam success has of late become absolutely necessary for everyone in the business, there has been an explosion of information about what to say and how it will be marked.

Candidates, parents and teachers want passes – future lives depend on it. Heads want everyone to pass – the very life of the school can depend on it. Exam boards want successful candidates – their business depends on it. The government wants success so they can brag about standards of education rising – their re-election may depend on it.

So the slide away from teachers saying “they could ask you anything so let’s teach and learn everything”, to examiners saying “let’s tell you what we want, then all you have to do is plate it up” has been demonstrable. And, it appears, dangerous for standards.

The government has woken up to the torrent of information replacing the lofty secrecy, and it appears they hope to stem this tide – no more examiners’ seminars for all and take us back to the golden age of candidates going into the exams armed only with what they know of the subject.

If they succeed, it’s just possible that the only way you will be able to find out what examiners want is to become one yourself. And if you did, would that give your candidates an unfair advantage and actually be classed as cheating?

This guest editorial has been written for Sec Ed by Hilary Moriarty, who taught English for 25 years in comprehensive, grammar and independent schools.  Originally published at;type_uid=7

Taking the lead: board meeting

Headteachers of both state and private boarding schools held their annual gathering recently.

What do you need for a good conference? A good hotel, great food, convivial company and star speakers. Apart from losing education secretary Michael Gove at the last minute, the Boarding Schools’ Association, of which 38 are state boarding schools, did well on all four counts for its annual conference for heads, in Bristol earlier in May.

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On your side: when does the tutoring stop?

Recent news reports of university students employing coaches or tutors to help them knock their large quantities of undigested research into presentable essays and dissertations ring alarm bells.

The reports suggest that this might be okay for the kind of written work undergraduates have to produce routinely, but concern should surely be expressed if this additional help was applied to coursework which contributed to a final degree classification or to a dissertation.

The students quoted failed to see the problem. They said they had had extra tuition in their school lives, why not extra tutoring now, over and above what the university with its crowded lecture theatres and tutorials could offer?

They declared themselves excellent researchers – they had done the work. In the cases quoted, it seemed their only problem was actually organising the mass of material into a presentable form. Hence the coach/tutor.

But wait a minute. Does this practice not destroy the currency of a degree? Because one of the things a degree certainly used to tell the world was that you could organise the work as well as do the research; that your grasp of the material was clear and fluent.

If you could not organise the stuff, then you were in the wrong subject, wrong university, wrong territory – get out of history and into accountancy if that’s where your talent lies, but don’t get a degree by pretending you can do those things because if you do, what’s the degree worth?

The answer to that, of course, is plenty, according to government figures about life-time earning expectations. Something of an incentive to cheat, perhaps?

But is it cheating, and if so, does anyone mind? You could say that these tutors are merely filling the gaps which lecturers, more keen on research, have left. The students were right when they said they had had tutors before – London newspapers, for example, are full of stories of tutoring in the capital, mostly to get children through selective entry exams like Common Entrance in the independent sector, the 11-plus or towards GCSE and A levels.

Parents fear that no matter which school the child attends, extra tuition would be a good idea. It might make a lifetime’s difference. What matters is the grade, not how you got it. If a class gets two hours a week on maths and little Johnny gets an extra three hours at home, then good for him. Johnny will be proud of his A*, universities will believe he was clever enough to get it, and Johnny is never going to admit to the extra time. And, in his defence, you could say he put in the work.

When I was head of English in a girls’ grammar school, I was horrified if any of my pupils asked if they should get coaching. It felt like a personal insult – what more could they possibly want? And if they went ahead and got the tuition, and scored well in whatever exam, I always felt neither I nor the school could take the credit for that result. How unfair to judge a school on GCSE outcomes when the school is not actually responsible for all the teaching a pupil receives.

Somehow I expect that tuition in the school years probably is just that – booster lessons, supplementing what schools do, and mostly do very well. But having someone organise your degree work? That isn’t tuition, it’s ghost-writing.

It is perhaps a pity we have come to accept ghost-writing as honourable in the world of celebrity books, because we are on a perilously slippery slope when we do. Hiring an organiser to knock your degree work into shape is to fall at the final fence of your education and get someone else to jump it for you, and that can’t be right. It’s rather like training for the Olympics and getting someone else to run for you. Somewhere along the line, the final performance surely has to be your own.

This guest editorial, written in a personal capacity, first appeared on the Sec Ed website at;type_uid=7.

Sec Ed Guest editorial: Right you ‘orrible lot

The focus on discipline in schools sparked by the summer’s riots has been all-to predictable and no doubt has bumped Troops to Teachers, one of the coalition’s flagship policy ideas, up the agenda again.

It’s amazing how often at the Boarding Schools’ Association we receive phone calls from parents close to tears and declaring: “We have to find a boarding school for him (or her) – he (or she) is out of control!” Continue reading