Undercover filming at a privately-run course for language teachers
By Ruth Alexander
BBC Radio 5 live Donal MacIntyre show
An ex-exam board official runs seminars in which he advises language teachers to "script" pupils' GCSE oral exams, a BBC undercover investigation has found.
Terry Murray said, if pupils learned a few key phrases, the teacher examining them could "flannel" to fill in gaps.
He said the "consensus" was that this happened in 95% of oral exams that were taped and sent away to be marked. He later insisted this was not cheating.
Exams regulator Ofqual said action should be taken if this was happening.
The head of Ofqual, Isabel Nisbett, said it was difficult to judge between what was good preparation by a teacher and what overstepped the mark.
She said: "If the entire oral exam is rehearsed and memorised from beginning to end, then that is not appropriate. That is wrong."
Speaking to BBC Radio Five Live's Donal MacIntyre show, which carried out the investigation, Mr Murray insisted that it was just good exam technique.
He said: "It's not cheating for teachers and students to rehearse these questions and it's not cheating to help students devise their own answers."
What you need to do is to actually ask language teachers, off the record, what they actually do
Terry Murray, former chief examiner
Mr Murray, who formerly worked for the OCR examining board, has for several years run private courses for teachers who want to improve their pupils' GCSE grades.
On the one-day course held at a London hotel in March, he advised teachers how to prepare a low-ability student for a French oral examination.
He suggested getting pupils to learn and rehearse phrases which showed their ability to use a verb properly and then to ask questions in a particular order which elicited those phrases, interspersed with others that required "Oui" as the response.
"You've got about five or six minutes to fill. And Little Joey, you've trained him like a dog - 'When I say this, you say that.'"
He said it was also important that the pupil knew the order the questions would come up.
He later defended this when interviewed for the radio programme, saying: "As regards the order in which the questions are asked, if you're going to do a dress rehearsal for a play, you don't start with act two and then go back to act one."
When he was secretly filmed at the seminar, he was heard telling teachers: "Next time you meet somebody who actually marks the cassettes... ask them what percentage of what you hear on those cassettes is scripted, and what percentage is genuine conversation.
"And the consensus is 95% is scripted. The schools are under such pressure to get examination results that nothing is left to chance.
"So it's got to be a list of questions - 'I say this, you say that.'"
Since the 1980s, teachers have had the option of conducting the GCSE oral exam rather than bringing in an external examiner. They record it and then send it off to be marked.
The structure varies from exam board to exam board, but teachers often have some influence over which topics are discussed or they know in advance that it will be one or two from a fairly narrow range of topics.
But Ms Nisbett said the conversation element of the oral exam should be spontaneous and free-flowing.
"We require the exam boards to make clear checks on the quality of internal assessment in schools and, if what you are saying is true, we would expect that to be picked up by the awarding bodies and they will take action."
Exam boards have condemned the scripting and rehearsal of questions.
A spokesperson for OCR, one of England's main boards, said Mr Murray's advice was not correct and that he was advocating malpractice. But the board could not point to any precise rule on this specific point.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Murray said: "What do you do with a low-ability student, who couldn't even say, when asked in English, 'What did you do on Saturday?'
"From the teacher's point of view it is preferable to have some French on the recording rather than silence."
He added: "What you need to do is to ask language teachers, off the record, what they actually do.
"You've been to the authorities and people are speaking on the record. Now if you speak on the record, you get a different slant.
"Everybody's watching their backs."
Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said teachers were under intense pressure to improve their pupils' grades.
Exams test schools as well as students
He said: "We've got to a system where the exam marks are not there just to record the achievement of the pupils. They are there to judge the schools.
"We have targets and league tables which mean the actual marks that emerge are very important to the teachers and the schools."
Schools minister Jim Knight said: "This incident is an example of what we don't want to see. It is certainly something we should be pointing out to our inspectors and regulators."
But he dismissed the idea that school league tables had led to a culture of extreme teaching to the test.
"If this sort of practice were to be widespread, and I don't believe it is, then it's a huge disservice to children," he said.
"It goes completely against teachers' professionalism and obviously as a government we think it's important, which is why we've set up Ofqual, independent of us, in order to regulate this and ensure this sort of practice doesn't happen."
But Isabel Nisbett of Ofqual admitted that it was difficult to stop teachers over-preparing their pupils.
"I know there has always been a tension between over-preparation that tips over the edge and becomes just parrot-like repetition. And it is a difficult one to judge.
"And it is difficult to design controlled assessments that can't be contorted into becoming just parrot-like repetitions."
This story will be broadcast on the Donal MacIntyre show on BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday 19 April 2009 at 1900 BST. Download the free podcast
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