A personal blog by Teacher Development Trust CEO David Weston

There has been a heated debate this morning about whether teachers are cheating as a matter of course within controlled assessments. The Ofqual report has led to some commentators bridling that the teaching profession has been tarnished, while others see it as yet more evidence of a ‘failing’ education sector.


There was a heated twitter debate, with the always good-value @oldandrewuk listing various things that teachers could do to help students get higher marks in coursework and exams:

“Am being pressured for a list of what teachers do to manipulate results. Please contribute. I’ll start: mark generously, design mocks, that are very close to the exam, provide extra advice to target students, use SEN system to get extra time for key students, bend the rules on advice, turn a blind eye to what happens when supervising [Controlled Assessments], tell kids what to do, mark according to likely patterns of moderation. Basically, anything and everything, some against the rules, some bending, some unfair but permitted. All in the confidence that the exam boards (already exposed as corrupt and competing for school’s business) will never blow the whistle and that SMT will apply pressure to up the grades rather than to make them more honest. Annoyed at having to spell this out, again and again.”

What really interests me about this list is that some of these could be construed as either teaching or cheating depending on the context and your personal point of view. For example, if a severely dyslexic pupil is given extra time then most people would say that was fair. But what about a less-dyslexic pupil? Hard to draw the line.

In today’s debate many people are taking an entirely binary view, i.e. that something is either clearly cheating, or clearly not. When combined with crass generalisations (“All teachers do this all the time” versus “I’ve never heard any teacher ever do this”) then hackles get raised on both sides. The problem is in the framing of the debate, I think. It’s wrong to view cheating as a binary phenomenon, and it’s wrong to ignore the fact that teachers sit on a continuum, as does the opinion of those judging it.

Some pupils may benefit from writing frames to help them construct essays. Indeed in the mid ’90s when I sat my English Lit we were essentially told what to write and then advised to copy it in to the books that we took in to the exam to regurgitate. Fortunately things aren’t as bad now, but if a teacher knows topics that are more likely to come up then is it cheating or just good teaching to give heavily structured support in how to write on those topics? It may depend on the pupil, it may depend on how much the teacher really knows the likely exam topics, and it also depends on whether they are teaching the skill more broadly or very narrowly for the exam – again, open to interpretation.

Mock exams are supposed to help pupils get a feel for the real thing, and help teachers identify pupils who might under-perform. If the department already knows the coursework topic then should they deliberately choose the least-relevant topic for the mock, or sail close to the wind with something very similar? Is there even a clear way to judge this?

In Physics A-level practical exams teachers often give pupils digital vernier scales or thermometers to avoid them making mistakes in reading analogue scales. Is this cheating? Most people would probably say it isn’t, but it’s certainly doing everything in the teachers power to help them succeed.

Cheating is clearly on a continuum, and it’s very likely that any two people would disagree where to draw a line. In the absence of any clarity, it’s inevitable that pressure of accountability combined with an altruistic desire for students to do well will mean that teachers draw the line, on average, in a more lenient place than a casual observer from outside the system.

However, drawing these average positions also hides a huge amount of detail. If you’ll excuse the roughness of this sketch (alas I don’t have the mathematical tools of the excellent Chris Cook and his brilliant analysis of this topic so I did this in Windows Paint), then you might estimate teachers are distributed as follows:

From this we’d see that very few teachers would regard everything that @oldandrewuk suggested as cheating, although a few would. These teachers would resist giving extra time to anyone, they wouldn’t setting mocks, they’d object to giving writing frames and would studiously avoid anything but the minimum of discussion of topics that are likely to come up. However, there probably aren’t many of these teachers. More commonly, teachers would do some of these things (e.g. let some students get extra time, do a close-but-not-too-close mock), but wouldn’t sail too close to the wind. A small number, whether through lack of professionalism, extreme pressure or ignorance, would genuinely give illegal hints, tap recommended questions in exam halls, give answers to regurgitate, and so on.

Parents reading today’s scare stories may well think the moral line should be drawn nearer the Teaching end of the spectrum, although as every teacher knows this tune often changes as soon as it gets to exam time for their own kids.

In the English exam under discussion it’s clear (from Chris Cook’s graphs) that some manipulation did take place, whether consciously or not, although it’s less clear whether this was combined with some general statistical tinkering to keep outcomes ‘comparitive’ to the previous year. It’s also a little unfair to draw this graph without drawing the same graph for lots of other exam subjects and for other years. I’d be astonished if the same effect wasn’t universally present, to some extent. The really interesting bit is that in Wales, without the accountability C/D borderline measures, you don’t see the effect. That suggests that our accountability system is driving teachers to draw their moral line further to the right on my teaching-cheating continuum than teachers in Wales.

How to improve the accountability system is the topic of a future blog, but suffice it to say that in the discussion in the coming days everyone could benefit from recognising that there isn’t one universal agreement about where we draw the line between teaching and cheating.

What teachers do need is to spend more time moderating and discussing work within their schools, and also cross-moderating with other schools. There should be time for teachers to explicitly debate where the moral line lies on this issue, and work carefully with colleagues, collaboratively, to ensure that they are always on the correct side of it. There should be expert trained assessors and moderators in every school, and these experts should contribute to the planning and moderating of mock exams and coursework.

This would bring us more in to line with countries like Finland (as boring as it is to bring them up again) where part of teacher professionalism is this strong desire to cross-moderate and create expert assessment. This also contributes to better overall teaching and learning.