April 2009
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GCSE history: should exam boards train teachers?

In a thoughtful Guardian article yesterday morning, Warwick Mansell raised the unspoken question: should the people who set history exams profit from it by training teachers how to pass them?

The question needs to be taken seriously. Undercover recordings for Radio 5 Live have lifted the lid on examiners charging teachers over £200 a day to give them advice on how to work the GCSE system to their advantage: short cuts, tricks of the trade . What does this tell us about the probity of our system , one brought about by obsession with league tables and value added?

One company, London Revision, which many of you will know, was set up by two history teachers and examiners, says on its webiste that it ran more than 80 courses for GCSE and A level students last year. Is there anything wrong with this? Warwick believes there is and thinks people would be horrified if they knew what is going on. He reports a conversation with a friend who works as a senior examiner for a professional accountancy qualification. She regarded this type of behaviour as ‘an abuse of my position. I would consider my career at an end’. And yet we allow this practice to persist in schools. ‘You want your kids to do well. Easy if you know how.. Buy the book written by the board’s Chief Examiner. Go to the courses run by the board’s Chief Examiner. Take your students to events run by the board’s examiners’.

Does all this really matter? One of the more worrying issues is that of grade inflation, of course. The more you support people towards doing well in a particular history paper, almost to the point of hinting what questions/topics might come up,the better they are going to do. Fair enough, naturally,as long as this reflects genuine academic achievement, rather than simply learning board-specific tricks. When I use to interview students during a full OFSTED inpsection, I always asked their views on history as a subject. They liked the subject and enjoyed learning new material. But one question puzzled them. Why did they need to spend so much more time on learning exam technique in history, rather than learning a new topic? It  is a fair question!!

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