Education Forum regular Joe Nutt highlights a conflict of interest in examiners selling exam-preparation advice

It’s some years now since the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, introduced a ban on its own inspectors moonlighting in schools. Quite a few enterprising individuals who had been trained and paid by Ofsted to inspect schools, created an additional lucrative opportunity selling their services personally and directly to anxious headteachers, offering schools what came to be called Mocksteds; a kind of horse’s mouth preparation for the real thing, only without the blessing of the British Horseracing Authority. It took Ofsted far too long to recognise the problem, step in to put an end to it.   

Today we have a similar issue involving GCSE and A level examiners. Businesses, other organisations and some individual examiners, are selling their services to teachers and even in some cases students, under the guise of study days and training events.

One business describing itself as ‘the leading provider of external educational study days in the UK’ advertises a course for teachers and students, where the key attraction is that it is run by the Chair of Examiners for A-level English language and Literature at a leading awarding body. Another organisation, well known for its publications and courses for English and Media teachers, markets a course being delivered by someone described as ‘a senior examiner and moderator for an awarding body’, although this one is aimed at teachers only.

When I looked further into this I discovered a list of 21 examiners running courses in: English, Classical Civilisation, Psychology, Geography, History, Music, PE, RE, Biology, MFL, Drama, Maths and Literacy. These courses are being sold by 11 different organisations or businesses, ranging from individuals to high profile school training providers.

Anyone involved in professionally assessing GCSE or A-level exams for any of the five major exam boards, who also advises an audience of students – who may be sitting those exams in a few weeks or months – or teachers who are teaching them, for a fee is self-evidently involved in a serious conflict of interest.

This is especially ironic when most of these courses are sold under the umbrella term schools use for training events – Continuing Professional Development, or CPD. More unprofessional behaviour from examiners, beyond a straightforward acceptance of bribes, is hard to imagine.

It is important to be clear who these examiners are. Examiners are not full time employees working for exam boards as experts in assessment or the due diligence processes required to run a secure, high stakes assessment process. The overwhelming majority of thousands of GCSE and A level examiners are full time, part time or former subject teachers, who take on what is relatively low paid additional work, as a means to earn extra cash. AQA offers potential recruits between £500 – £1000 depending on the type and volume of paper you mark. While OCR say their examiners could earn between £240 to £1,500 for marking a full allocation. This will be for a period of around four weeks work.

They are neither subject experts, nor academic scholars. Indeed if you look at the material boards use to try and attract the many thousands of examiners they need every year, learning more about their own subject and the exam specifications is repeatedly mentioned as a positive benefit. One of AQA’s recruitment videos features a teacher who started examining after only one year of teaching and encourages other equally inexperienced teachers to do the same.

But businesses selling courses run by examiners is corrupting in a far more insidious way than the merely financial. The prevalence of teaching to the exam, with all that entails in terms of missed educational opportunities, the deskilling of the profession and the reduction of schools to nothing more significant than their exam results, has become a widespread complaint amongst teachers themselves.

When you set up the examiner, someone who is meant to be merely an objective, reliable assessor of anonymous material produced by children, as some kind of subject expert guide for professional teachers, you also set a dangerously reductive educational precedent.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant; TES columnist; author, The Point of Poetry, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Late Plays and A Guidebook to Paradise Lost