C4’s “Dispatches” – “Cheating the System” – Why?

This week Channel 4’s Dispatches featured an investigation into the education examination system.

“Cheating the System” was its title. A more appropriate investigation would have been “Why is there cheating in the system?”

thumb cheat

The reporter Seyi Rhodes investigated reported “cheating” from primary schools through to universities with a series of stories about how the system can be manipulated.

It’s the system that’s at fault. The fact that some people choose to “cheat” demonstrates the nonviable, destructiveness of this single-minded, single-tracked interpretation of education. The fact that there’s so much at stake causes people to take risks that they wouldn’t normally consider. Many who take such risks are doing it with the interests of the children and young people at the centre, knowing that they live in a time when exam results seemingly count for everything – although inflating or deflating their achievements isn’t helpful to them in the longer term. Others distort the truth out of pure fear that their careers will be taken from them if they don’t hit the imposed and often unreasoned targets.

It’s good that “Dispatches” has highlighted the problem but further investigation is needed to explore the real reasons why this situation has occurred and what we can do to prevent it in the future.

It’s worth mentioning that the numbers of those accused of “maladministration” is low but education journalist Warwick Mansell and university lecturer Thomas Lancaster implied that the problem is much more widespread.

Seyi Rhodes suggested that there were six “tricks” to cheating the system.

EXAMS Seyi Rhodes right 0051--(None)_A2

For those who work in education, these aren’t surprising.

  • KS1: Children are “marked down” so that there’s a higher Value Added score for the school when pupils sit their SATs in Year 6 – making it look as though the pupils have made more progress than they have.
  • KS2: Inflate results or provide “a little extra help” to pupils taking their SATs.
  • KS4: “disappearing children”; students taken off the school roll if they aren’t likely to achieve the grades, thereby their “failed results” don’t feature in the published results for the school.
  • KS4: Lenient modular and coursework marking to inflate results for GCSEs.
  • KS4: Publishing results inclusive of re-sits on school’s websites. (NB: the government now doesn’t include re-sits in their official performance tables).
  • Post school: Students plagiarising or using “Essay Banks” to complete coursework

A summary of the programme from Channel 4 can be found here, and from the Guardian, can be found here.

“Cheating” in exams is as old as exams themselves. There’s always going to be someone who wants to manipulate the results. However, the bigger issue that the programme didn’t fully consider is why people feel the need to distort or manipulate the outcomes of these high-stakes tests.


The pressure on teachers and students is enormous. If the whole purpose of education is measured on a child’s ability to pass tests or a school’s ability to teach children how to pass tests, then that’s the part of education that is going to receive concentrated time and energy, all too frequently to the exclusion and detriment of the other vital components of education and schooling.

If you then add the consequences of failure – such as losing your job, having an enforced change to the governance of your school, being taken over by an academy chain, pupils failing to gain employment or progress to further or higher education, then you begin to see the tipping point that triggers people to take risks.

At the centre of all these problems is the nationally published performance/league tables.

League tablesImagine a life without them.

The “League Tables” don’t encourage a rise in standards. They encourage competition rather than collaboration between schools. They can encourage a minority of dedicated, committed teachers to distort results because the consequences of failure are enormous. They encourage teaching to the test because there’s more than an obvious correlation between Ofsted’s judgement of a school and their standards data.

Performance related pay is an issue but we doubt that this is the main reason that people choose “maladministration”.

The new education bill is going to exacerbate this problem.

The introduction of baseline assessments will encourage “Trick number 1” – whereby a child’s ability on entering school could be deflated to show progress at the end of KS1.

The EBacc changes announced by Nick Gibb last week will force schools to make their pupils take exams in subjects in which they have little or no interest. Those poor young people who are keen on history and geography will be discouraged from taking both subjects even if they want to – because only one of these two subjects can feature as part of any individual EBacc attainment. There’s no place for any art, music, drama in these EBacc changes even though they are allegedly “encouraged” to be studied by the government. How is that right? How is that progress?

Ultimately, schools and students have “choice” and “autonomy” as long as they comply with the criteria for success prescribed by the government. Which school is going to be brave enough to encourage a student who wants to study drama, art and music for GCSE if they’re going to be penalised by a depressed percentage mark for EBacc attainment in future league tables?

This is a long way from personalised learning, and a distance from the “social justice” which Mr. Gibb talks about.


Here are some of the comments about the Dispatches programme from Twitter.

@WillcoxJoe – “Dispatches expressed some understanding of pressure on teachers, but I feel it wasn’t given enough emphasis”.

@psymonbee – “This cheating culture is down directly to Ofsted, Gove and Morgan and the system that they have put in place”.

@chrisbaldwinlaw – “Dispatches highlights the huge rise in university plagiarism, esp. essay banks. Anyone who doesn’t think this is a major problem is naïve”.

@DianaPitchers – “It’s a sad day when school pupils are viewed as “money in the door” not actual human beings with needs and life goals!”

@DavidWilson1975 – “Dispatches fails to highlight the pressures they highlight i.e. Government policy of comp., punitive accountability & standardisation”.

                        “Imagine if schools were encouraged to work collaboratively to   raise learning outcomes rather than compete via league tables”.

@ruthserwotka – “Dispatches needs to be clear what is driving pressure to distort results. Not teachers but punitive results driven systems”.

[The word “punitive” should never be used in the same sentence as “education”.]

@syded606 – “Safe to say we won’t look back on this period of education with pride”.

Indeed we won’t.

It would be interesting to look into the future to see how historians consider education at the start of this millennium, considering the technological advances that could have created a far more individualised, fairer education system. They may well snigger at our thoughtlessness.

The Dispatches programme was a start but by no means was it a conclusive investigation into the reasons why there are problems with the examination system – and barely a mention of league tables.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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4 Responses to C4’s “Dispatches” – “Cheating the System” – Why?

  1. Pingback: If you put people in extreme conditions…then expect extreme behaviour. | Gravesham NUT

  2. Angela says:

    Off-rolling at ks4 doesn’t work, and I think won’t have done for a couple of years, because if a pupil is excluded or off-rolled after the January census, their results still go into the school’s results for that year, unless another school admits them and asks to claim their results. If a pupil ‘disappears’ from the school roll between the start of year 10 and the end of year 11 they are also added back unless claimed elsewhere . See the DfE ks4 September Tables Checking Troubleshooting and FAQ – https://tableschecking.education.gov.uk/Web14/KS45Checked/Documents.aspx


  3. The one thing missing here is the commercialisation of cheating. I recall several years ago the founder of a company that sold essays to university students saying that she saw nothing immoral about it. In her view cheating was just a commercial opportunity ripe for exploitation.


    • 3D Eye says:

      That’s a valid point, one that we’ll rectify in an additional post, together with the alarming commercialism of the exam factory system with “big players” making astronomical profits out of high stakes testing. Thank you again for reading our posts. CB


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