Howard Croft column: A failure of integrity with teaching body

A recent furore ocurred over the leaking of exam questions to students.
A recent furore ocurred over the leaking of exam questions to students.

The recent furore over the leaking of public examination questions to pupils by teachers who in addition to teaching had also been involved in the setting of the exam papers was surprising in many ways. It seems to have been confined, as far as we know, to well-known public schools and this aspect of the scandal was stressed. As a friend of mine said, one assumes that these schools turn out people with better manners, which is true as far as it goes, but it appears that the pupils involved were blameless; it was the teachers who had offended and for all we know they could themselves have been educated at a comprehensive school in Wolverhampton. Or Hull, even.

Further, there is no rule that states that those with beautiful manners cannot also be dishonest, stupid or, as I think was the case here, both. Certainly, there are many examples of former public schoolboys who have deployed the “polish” that comes with their education in pursuit of careers as confidence tricksters and cads, some of them going on to enjoy Her Majesty’s hospitality in an unexpected manner.

There seem to be two problems here: a failure of integrity within the teaching body and a failure of regulation on the part of the state. The latter must be put in place where the former cannot be guaranteed. In my day, when I was marking exam papers, it was the custom not to mark for the examination board whose syllabus you taught in the day job – but it was not forbidden.

This was a sensible custom that gave teacher-markers some protection. It was commonplace for those preparing pupils for public examinations to focus to some extent on essay questions that were likely to come up in one way or another. This was a process known as “spotting”, as in picking the most fancied runners at the races and was based on careful analysis of past papers going back many years. For example in A Level English, if the set play were King Lear as it always seemed to be, there would be a strong possibility of a question on the role of the Fool and “filial ingratitude” was also near certainty.

The danger in this for a skilful “spotter” and was the possible suspicion that inside information had been involved, a suspicion that would not stand up if the spotter worked for a rival examination board. Rivalry is too strong a word for those were innocent times when the boards were university functions, not commercial arms of, in some cases, commercial educational publishers, an obvious conflict of interest.

If I remember correctly, there were three: London University, Oxford and Cambridge Universities operating in tandem and the Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board (NUJMB). Among pupils there were strongly held opinions as to which were the most difficult. I sat London as a schoolboy and taught NUJMB as a schoolmaster, a term no longer in polite use. I quickly came to the view that there wasn’t anything in it. There were murky suspicions that sitting the Oxford and Cambridge Board exams improved one’s chances of admission to either of those institutions should one apply.

Absent inflexible integrity on the part of teachers, the leaking of inside dope on important (and unimportant) exams should be treated as gross misconduct punishable by instant dismissal and removal from the register of teachers. Unfortunately, regulation of teachers does not have an encouraging history. The General Education Council (GED), modelled on the General Medical Council (GMC) and set up to do a broadly similar job maintaining professional standards turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. In a five year period eighteen teachers were “struck off”; in a five year period the GMC would strike off over three hundred doctors. To put this in context, there are approaching half a million registered teachers and about half that number of registered medical practitioners.

Is it probable that teachers are sixty times more virtuous than doctors? Geography teachers, in my experience enthusiastic floggers, might alone account for the eighteen unfrocked in five years. One excuse offered was that the GED did not have the funds to hold disciplinary hearings. More context: doctors each pay £425 a year to remain on the register; teachers were paying £36, of which £33 was reimbursed to them by the government. This process of regulation never stood a chance because no-one took it seriously. Especially not geography teachers I suspect.