The Big Cheat – fixing the figures to please the education secretary

The Guardian, July 11 2000

There were eighteen children in a classroom. All of them had three things in common: they were all studying Macbeth for GCSE English; they had all turned in essays to be assessed as part of their GCSE; and not one of them had written a single word of any of the essays, because their teacher (with a little help from her husband) had spent the weekend writing the whole lot for them.

This teacher says that routinely she writes her students’ coursework and that a lot of her colleagues do the same. “I do it for two reasons. First, you give the kid a chance and second, you don’t get beaten over the head. Otherwise, you get the blame for the fact that the kids don’t do any work, or don’t even turn up, and for the fact that the National Curriculum is crap and doesn’t do anything for a load of kids. You are bullied. The bullying of staff by senior management in schools is appalling.”

Welcome to the other side of David Blunkett’s drive for higher standards, to the world of tests and targets, where the career prospects of a teacher or the future of a whole school can be broken by one bad set of statistics, a world where teachers have been taught to fear failure with such an intensity that they have learned to cut corners to survive. Welcome to the Big Cheat.

We have spoken to teachers, headteachers, LEA advisers, Ofsted inspectors, officials and leaders of teacher unions, and we have not found a single one of them who has not heard of some kind of cheating to deliver the figures which the Secretary of State now requires. The cheating which they report goes far beyond GCSE course work – to multiple fiddles on SATs tests and GCSEs, to the wholesale fabrication of figures on truancy and attendance, to the falsification of records on excluded children. It is certain that not all teachers have been driven to cheat; equally, our evidence suggests that the fiddling is now widespread.

The significance of the Big Cheat is not simply that Mr Blunkett’s figures are infected with fiction. Beneath the fiddling, there is little doubt that in the last ten years there has been some real advance in the standards achieved in Britain’s state schools. The more important point is that it is yet another sign of the enduring weakness of New Labour’s attack on poor standards – that their underlying analysis of failure is mistaken – with the result that their strategy repeatedly evades the real problems and imposes the entire burden of change on teachers and managers.

As this Guardian series has previously shown, the most important single factor in a school’s failure to hit academic targets is its intake of children and, in particular, of the 30% of Britain’s children who live with the damaging effects of poverty. The government swats this aside with its mantra that “poverty is no excuse” and continues with Kenneth Baker’s market in school places, even though it penalises the schools with the most impoverished intake.

Beyond that, school failure reflects financial limits – large classes, scarce equipment, poor buildings, stressed teachers. As we revealed in March, this government has lied grossly about the amount of extra money which it is investing in schools. Failing effectively to tackle these underlying problems, the government has inflicted overwhelming pressure on teachers and managers to deliver all of the necessary change themselves. There is no doubt that there was room for teachers and managers to improve – but they alone cannot deliver a change on the scale demanded. And so, some of those who have the most difficult intakes of children and/or the most stifling financial problems have learned to cheat to survive.

In order to make it more difficult for the Department for Education to blame individuals instead of acknowledging their own strategy as the cause of the problem, we have disguised the identity of almost all of those who spoke to us. As one Westcountry teacher put it: “The emperor has no clothes. We all know the system is ridiculous but we don’t do anything about it. It’s just a game we play.” Or, to be precise, a collection of games.

Take, for example, the Truancy Game. The object is to make your attendance figures look good. This has been important since the mid 1990s when Ofsted started to log attendance as an indicator of a school’s progress and the DFEE started to publish annual figures. Now it has become an even higher priority: David Blunkett has announced that by the year 2002, schools must reduce the number of days lost to truancy by 30%. Schools who fail to hit their targets are liable to lose funds.

The truancy game is played on a desk top. Points are scored by obliterating the evidence of unauthorised absences, and players can score these points in two simple ways: by pretending that an absent child was really in the school, or by admitting that the child was absent but pretending that there was a legitimate reason. Although the rules are simple, experienced players have developed different tactics.

There are some who like to wait for the end of term and then spend a whole day on the figures, like this senior teacher at a secondary school in an inner city area: “At the end of term, if you’ve got less than, say, 92%, which is your attendance target, then you go right back through the register and you start putting in ‘present’. You can do it with the new electronic registers just the same. Sometimes it’s the head who says to the person who’s doing the returns, to work on the figures, sort of ‘we need our attendance at such and such, so make sure we get there’.

“It’s a lot of work, you have to write in loads of ‘presents’. You think about it: if you’ve been doing two registers a day, it comes to about 150,000 attendances in one term, and if you find out you’ve only got 87% and you need 92 or 93%, you’ve got to put in about 7,000 extra ‘presents’ – all those new ‘present’ marks you’ve got to put in. It takes ages. And, if you’re sensible, you have to think about it a bit. You can’t go doing it with the kids who are truanting all the time; you might get the social worker investigating and it’ll bugger up all the evidence.”

Other players prefer to keep the ball rolling all through the term, with a little fiddling each day, usually by pretending that somebody like a parent or a doctor has authorised a child to be absent, as numerous teachers explained: “You just write ‘letter sent’ or ‘letter received’, or it could have been a phone call… You can use religious holidays… No one checks, you just say the absence was authorised.” Other fiddles are opportunistic. “We had to close the school for the day, because the heating broke down so we put it down as 100% attendance… We have children in the behaviour unit who often only get taught for half the day but it gets put down as a whole day.”

The game is so widespread that it is scarcely secret at all. Here is a former head teacher, now a nationally respected expert on the improvement of schools: “I know that schools have fixed the attendance figures and I believe the government cannot be unaware of it.” Or here is one of Ofsted’s registered inspectors, formerly a senior LEA official: “Fiddling attendance figures is dead common. It’s easy.” Or this school clerk from the East Midlands: “We fiddle them because we have absolutely no control over how many children come to school.” Or the deputy head from East London: “I don’t feel any shame about it at all. There is no other way to do it. And that’s the truth. Everybody does it.”

For those who prefer something with a little more skill and imagination, the government has also organised the Great Exclusion Game, an exercise in vanishing acts. Just as with truancy, Mr Blunkett has set a target for the number of excluded children to be cut by 30% by 2002 with the threat of financial penalties for those who fail. So, the trick here is to exclude children without admitting it. When you talk to the players, you find there is really not that much skill involved.

“It’s ‘jump before you’re pushed’. You get hold of the parent and you say ‘If you leave him here, we’re going to have to kick him out, it’ll be on his record for ever and he’ll never get a job, so why don’t you take him out yourself before it happens?’ It usually works.” Some headteachers call this ‘cleansing’: just about nobody admits that they are doing it, but just about everybody knows somebody else who has. Jenny Price of the Association for Education Welfare Managers told us: “Children whose faces don’t fit, children who will never get the required number of A to C grades or whose behaviour is disruptive: these children are removed off rolls. You cannot believe how easy it is. Nobody follows it up, nobody chases it.”

It is, in fact, the oldest trick in the current Big Cheat book, and officials in the Department of Education and the Social Exclusion Unit admit that it has been happening. A few players show signs of real ingenuity, like Firfield School in Newcastle who were caught out by Channel Four News last year arranging for the parents of regular truants to sign letters offering to educate their children at home. The parents had no such intention and said they signed the letters simply because they were told to. Never mind. It took the children off the school roll without chalking up any exclusions, so it made the figures look better. Which is what it’s all about.

A temporary exclusion is just as easy and, by all accounts, just as widespread: “You just phone the parents up and say ‘We’re sending him home and we don’t want him back till Tuesday’. They just accept it. It’s usually because there’s been some pretty bad incident, so they’re not going to argue about it. We don’t log it as an exclusion, so it doesn’t count as one. The only problem is that if we want to go for a 45-day exclusion, we can’t do it, because we haven’t recorded all the others.” As a variation, children are told to come in for half days only.

The pressure to deliver statistical ends without genuine means now runs through the system. The Guardian last year reported that there was widespread evidence of schools cheating during Ofsted tests: renting expensive IT equipment for the duration of the inspection, hiding disruptive pupils, fiddling class records, making weak teachers take time off and temporarily replacing them with supply staff. We have been told of schools who helped themselves out of special measures by using LEA advisers to stand in for teachers who were likely to be criticised by visiting HM inspectors.

There is no doubt that the most demanding play is seen in the Exam Games. SATS tests have become a central part of school life, the raw material for the league tables which, despite widespread acknowledgement of their failure to tell the truth about schools, have become firmly lodged as the key indicator of a school’s supposed success with critical implications for future enrolment and funding.

The pressure from the DFEE has been particularly intense since the Secretary of State announced that he would resign if by 2002 he could not get 80% of 11-year-olds to reach Level Four in English and 75% of them in maths. Chief officers at local education authorities say that Mr Blunkett’s officials agreed to local SATS targets but then found that the national total was too low for the Secretary of State and went back to some LEAs and imposed new higher targets which they believe are quite unrealistic.

There is almost no pattern to the play in SATS tests, more like an orgy of improvisation as different teachers slip through different loopholes in search of ways to meet the pressure. Some of the loopholes are more or less legitimate, encouraged even: extra classes to prepare children for the tests; practice work on last year’s papers, which are being sold in increasing quantities; the teaching of specific test-related skills, such as the lay-out and style for writing a letter, which is a regular question in English tests. The DFEE says much of this is simply part of improving literacy and numeracy, and they supply £42 milion for ‘booster classes’ for children approaching SATS. However, in a narrow distinction, they also say that they do not recommend ‘cramming or teaching to the test’ and there are many teachers who say that this whole focus on SATS is a perversion of education.

Some of the loopholes are more controversial, albeit they fall short of outright cheating: teachers who tell children that SATS are ‘the most important exams you’ll ever take’ and that their future sets will depend on them; the headteacher who wanders around the exam room, suggesting “You might want to have another look at that answer”; the invigilator who knows his students are answering a question about the essential conditions of life and who is asked how to spell ‘carbon dioxide’ and who replies for the whole class to hear “You don’t need to know how to spell carbon dioxide”; the English teacher who supplies a list of ‘wizard words’ – sophisticated, unusual words – for the children to memorise so they can scatter them throughout their English answers to impress the markers; invigilators who ignore the clock and let children have as much time as they want to complete their test.

And then there are the loopholes which everyone knows amount to cheating. We spoke to some of those who mark SATS tests and who see the clues in the answers: the school where every single child used almost exactly the same form of words to describe how shadows are made; the incorrect answers which have been crossed out and replaced with correct ones; the school whose children reproduced the wording from an official answer sheet; the papers where tick-boxes are filled out in a hand that is stronger and neater than that on the written parts of the paper. The markers say they are supposed to report evidence of malpractice. They all said they didn’t: too much hassle; their own marking would then have to be checked; they felt some solidarity with the classroom teachers. Some said they had made reports but that their anxieties had been dismissed.

Then we spoke to teachers and headteachers who explained how it is done. Some of them talked about how easy it was to make changes to children’s answers, particularly if they wrote in pencil or if you arranged for all of them to share a batch of brand new pens; and about how it was almost impossible to be a helper, when you can quite legitimately explain the question to children, without also beginning to explain the answer. An Ofsted inspector, who is also a private consultant and had dropped into a school to pick up some documents, told us he had found the teachers simply writing the answers to the SATS test on the board. “And this was a convent,” he said. “These were nuns cheating.”

But most of all, they talked about the Main Trick, the numerous different ways in which teachers can get an early sight of the test papers. This turns out to be rather simple. Eighty per cent of the eleven thousand SATS markers are teachers and, in order to standardise the marking, the examination boards have to give them access to the papers ten days before the exam. In the same way, the exam boards also employ a further 1,100 teachers as team leaders who tour the country lecturing markers and who get to see the papers 24 days before they are officially revealed; others work as consultants who help the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency to set the papers and who know the rough contents of the papers some 12 months before the children sit them.

The QCA and the DFEE both told us emphatically that this causes no problem. There is no system for checking the behaviour of markers, team leaders or consultants. “We don’t see this as a loophole,” a QCA spokesman said. The teachers who see the advance papers beg to differ. Some said simply that it would tak a will of iron to say nothing to their colleagues or to their students; others admitted priming their pupils and some that they had applied for these positions precisely so that they would be able to get early sight of the papers and prepare their children accordingly.

At the conference of the National Union of Teachers in April this year, there was open talk in the bars about the (supposedly secret) contents of the papers to be sat in May. We were told, for example: “Everyone’s been told the Key Stage Two children have to know all about walls – Vietnam Wall, Great Wall of China and so on. Apparently, there’s a whole section on that.” Sure enough, the English SATS paper which was unveiled in mid May included a section where children had to absorb and reproduce information about famous walls, Vietnam, China etc.

Armed with this information, teachers can simply prime their children or even persuade them to memorise set answers. A school governor in Yorkshire wrote to us that his headteacher had “heard stories about schools teaching pupils the answers to the actual questions; schools that put up the answers on classroom walls in the guise of educational aids; schools where teachers check papers as they are being written and make sure that answers are correct before they are handed in.”

It does not always work, as a senior teacher in London explained: “I was teaching Key Stage Three English, we were doing Romeo and Juliet, and I had very low-ability kids. We got the question in advance, I can’t remember how, but anyway I wrote out the answer and I said to them ‘Just take it home and learn it, all right?’ Which was OK, and then when it came to the paper, two of them went and did the question on Twelfth Night.”

Beyond this, every headteacher in the country is sent the SATs papers a week or ten days before their students are due to sit them. Headteachers told us there was little chance of being caught if they did open papers in advance. “And if you do open them and have a read, all you need to close them up is a heat-sealer, which is quite a common piece of equipment in a school.”

Barry Dawson, chair of the National Primary Headteachers Association, which supports the use of SATS tests but opposes league tables, said: “Heads and teachers are under such pressure that inevitably some will be tempted to bend the rules, and the current system is not rigorous enough to stop this. There is not anything like a rigorous system to check whether the tests have been opened or whether the tests are administered fairly.”

LEAs carry out spot-checks to make sure that the papers are not opened in advance, and the DFEE told us that “the incidence of the QCA finding anything untoward is so low as to be inexpressible”. However, the LEAs are short of inspectors, and the QCA acknowledge that the reality is that 90% of schools receive no spot-check when they sit SATS. Heads have to sign a declaration that they will keep the SATS papers secure, but there is no set punishment for a head who is caught out, and the QCA has dealt with cases where the LEA decided to take no action against heads who broke the declaration.

A headteacher in Sheffield has just been suspended after a colleague accused her of “irregularities in the administration of SATS exams”. Another in Essex felt so guilty after talking to pupils about the contents of the papers which they were to sit, that he reported himself to the chair of governors and resigned. In Devon, a headteacher resigned last year after being accused by a colleague of similar behaviour (although the LEA there has done its best to conceal the incident). The Guardian does not know how many other heads have given in to temptation. Nor does the DFEE.

Just as with the truancy game, there is a strong suggestion that this is an open secret. An HM Inspector who retired last year after some 20 years in the job said he had seen ‘ridiculous and dishonest pursuits’ to improve SATs results. An Ofsted registered inspector said: “Secondary heads usually know which primary heads are fiddling because the children arrive and cannot work to the level of their SATS results. Fiddling at Key Stage Two is probably pretty widespread. The policing is very weak.” His view is echoed by a retired secondary school head, who acknowledged that heads can open SATS papers: “There would be nothing to stop a headteacher preparing the children for the test.”

The difficulty is that fiddling is contagious, like steroids among athletes: if one teacher does well by cheating, the straight teacher looks worse than ever and is under more pressure than ever to conform to the new line. Under relentless pressure from the Home Office, the police have suffered a similar epidemic, as the Guardian and Channel Four’s Dispatches disclosed last year, when only four of the forty three forces in the country were not fabricating figures for reported crime and for detections, some of them on a massive scale: the pressure to compete with other forces who fiddle and flourish is almost irresistible.

GCSEs are better policed than SATs and the evidence is that cheating by teachers is less common. Nevertheless it happens. We found secondary school teachers who are routinely writing the course work which counts towards their students’ GCSE results. If there are drawings to do, they produce them, and the children stencil or copy them; if there are essays, the teachers produce them and either print them up with different type faces or ask children to write them out in long hand. “Some of them know why I’m asking them to write things out. With some of them, I just say ‘Can you do me a favour? Write this out, I want to put it on the wall’.”

Teachers put long hours into doing their students’ work for them: “I taught GNVQ business and admin to eleven kids, the average attendance for the class was 63%. I’m between a rock and a hard place. If I don’t do the course work, I’m going to get zero passes. And no one is going to say ‘Oh, that’s understandable’. So I did everything I could, I bit the bullet. They had to do three different elements with three different modules: I was creating itineraries for them, I made up interviews they had done with people in business, wrote letters they were supposed to have sent to businesses, everything I could.”

And there are some subtle manipulations. A recently retired secondary head told us: “If you are clever, you can improve your GCSE results by picking the right exam board for the right subjects. There are different pass rates and you can make quite a difference to your outcomes without making any difference at all to the children’s education.” Apparently on the same logic, more schools are taking drama GCSEs because they are said to be easy route to an A to C grade; and some are dropping German and Spanish as their second modern language and starting to teach Mandarin Chinese as an easier grade-scoring option.

Although there is a stronger tradition of security around GCSEs than around SATs, it appears to be breaking down. This is partly because, unlike earlier times, schools now have a conflict of interest since it is their performance as well as that of their students which is being tested and also, teachers claim, because the exam boards, which are now privatised bodies, have no commercial interest in proper policing. A regular invigilator said he had never yet seen a board inspector visit an exam in progress.

Another teacher described how on one occasion neither she nor her students had been able to produce some practical course work: “The exam moderator came in to look at it, so we kept making excuses, we told him we’d get him the work in a minute, and in the end, he just signed the sheet to say he’d seen the work, but it didn’t exist. What does he care? These exam boards are businesses. They don’t want to go making a school’s life difficult. He just went off home.”

As a safety net for those who cannot deliver the right exam figures, there is also some evidence of schools looking for mitigation by misrecording their base figures, particularly the ‘prior attainment’ levels of incoming pupils and the number of children who are poor enough to qualify for free school meals. A North London teacher told us: “My headteacher certainly exaggerates the FSM figures to make the exam results look better. As long as a child has been entitled to claim FSM once in the past, it can continue to do so in the future. You never come off the list. There is no monitoring afterwards. The paperwork is really sloppy.”

The DFEE and the QCA both assured us that there was no problem with the exam results, producing the unusual circumstance of a cacophony of confessors all admitting their ‘crimes’ while the ‘police’ insist that they are innocent. This may reflect the further new conflict of interest, that these exams now test not only the schools as well as the students, but also the performance of the DFEE, whose secretary of state has staked his career on raising standards.

Generally, these are the most curious of games: a mass spectator sport with the odd exception that the spectators – the parents and the tax-payers – don’t understand what is happening; games played with enormous determination with the even odder exception that the players cannot win. If the figures are bad, the players will get the blame and may lose their jobs; if the figures are good, however, the Secretary of State steps forward to take the prize.

Finally, there is conflicting evidence on whether the government is not merely enjoying the results of this cheating but actively stimulating it by making exams less demanding. James Sabben-Clare, the head of Winchester College, told last year’s conference of headteachers that he had no doubt that, despite government denials, A levels had become easier. Statisticians have queried last year’s improvement in Key Stage Two results which, they say, is so uniformly consistent across every part of the country as to invite the suspicion that the threshold marks were lowered. GCSE improvements, they say, look far more genuine since they vary from area to area.

SATs markers have some worrying stories about instructions which they say they have been given by team leaders appointed by the QCA to conduct one-day training sessions. In one example, a group of experienced markers all agreed that a test paper should be given a Level Three, below the expected standard for eleven-year-olds. The team leader reportedly seemed embarrassed and suggested that if they looked more carefully, they might like to agree it was a Level Four. “You’re joking,” replied the veteran markers. The team leader tried to insist, provoking the most cynical of the markers to say: “Oh, so David Blunkett gets to keep his job, does he?”

The same group of markers report that they were told that when children were asked in their English SATS to list in order the dates when famous walls were built, they could pass if they got the dates right, even if they were in the wrong order; and that when children were told to right a letter or diary about moving house , it would be all right if the children simply wrote a story, regardless of whether it had the form of a letter or a diary. One of the markers says she told the team leader: “We might just as well say to the children ‘Write whatever you like, dear, and you’ll get the marks’.”

Other markers report that last year’s requirement that in Maths and Science SATS answers should be correctly spelled in order to gain a pass, has now been dropped; and that children can pass English SATS by answering the section which requires them to tick multiple-choice boxes without having to produce any written answers at all. Senior QCA officials privately agree that there have been changes like this.

However, while this evidence clearly suggests that the goal posts have been moved in a direction which favours the government’s targets, it is a matter of record that David Blunkett was furious last year to find that the QCA had lowered the threshold marks for some SATs. Chief markers do carry out a ‘reality test’ with a sample of live papers as a result of which they may move the threshold, but the QCA insist that even the chief markers cannot tell what percentage will then pass this threshold and their concern is solely to maintain standards over different years. In support of this, one of the senior consultants who is helping the QCA to draft next year’s SATs tests and who was willing to acknowledge weaknesses in the system, told us he had been urged repeatedly to make sure that standards stayed high.

The real problem here is that, just as academics have forecast, there is a limit to the amount of improvement which can be generated in schools without dealing with the underlying problems of intake and resource. A spokesman for Mr Blunkett’s department told us: “There is not an issue about cheating in schools, and teachers are professional in these matters.” A spokesman for the emperor said his new suit was the finest in the land.

Additional research by Helene Mulholland