Curiouser and curiouser: Ofqual, OCR, and the exam questions censored by faith schools


Though I'm putting it at the beginning ....

It seems that Ofqual and OCR and any other exam-boards who may or may not have been involved have relented and announced that "schools will no longer be permitted to tamper with question papers prior to a student sitting an exam."

Sadly, of course, this will not necessarily ensure that state schools controlled by religious extremists will now begin to teach the full science curriculum to their students, but it is a very welcome step in the right direction.

Education minister Elizabeth Truss's views on these latest developments do not seem to have been announced.


On 2014-03-02 the Sunday Times ran a story entitled "Faith schools cut exam questions on evolution" (paywall) in which they said:

EXAM boards have been accused of colluding with faith schools to “censor” exam papers that contain questions on evolution and human reproduction.

The boards are said to be “accommodating creationism in the classroom” by working with schools that want to remove questions in GCSE papers that conflict with their religious beliefs.

One of England’s most respected exam boards, OCR, has a policy of reaching agreement with faith schools about removing such questions. Papers obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the board believes it is important to respect the schools’ need to do this “in view of their religious beliefs”.

Further details were provided by a post on the website of the National Secular Society "Government complicit in redaction of exam questions". In the NSS post, OCR are quoted (in correspondence with Ofqual) as follows:

In our deliberations we have reached the conclusion the most proportionate and reasonable approach would be to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will protect the future integrity of our examinations – by stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place – but at the same time respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs. We believe we need to be mindful of the fact that if we do not come to an agreement with the centres we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.

In other words, Ofqual appears to have known about "redactions" from exam papers to meet the objections of faith schools. (These redactions seem to have been focused mainly on science-paper questions about evolution and human reproduction.) Ofqual (the body which regulates the OCR and other school exam boards) does not appear to have taken any steps to stop OCR from following this practice and have thereby (it appears) effectively endorsed the practice.

My Freedom of Information Request

Like many people with interests in education and science, I was extremely concerned to learn that Ofqual had apparently given its tacit approval to the OCR's policy of censoring exam questions to meet objections from staff at state schools whose extreme religious views conflict with scientific findings. I wondered whether any other exam boards other than OCR were involved and so, on 2014-03-03, I contacted Ofqual to ask them:

FOI request Dear Sir/Madam

In yesterday’s Sunday Times http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/National/article1381959.ece , it was reported that OCR and Ofqual have cooperated with some faith schools who have a policy of censoring questions in science exams in order to avoid offending religious sensibilities.

Please could you inform me which, if any, exam boards other than OCR have allowed schools to censor exam papers with Ofqual’s blessing.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully

Dr M A Ward

It has taken twenty-four days for Ofqual to respond. This is well within the allowed time for FOI requests but, given that they have responded as they have - ie by not supplying me with any information, seems a rather long time to have taken. Anyway, here it is:

Some personal details redacted.

The key passage is:

I confirm that on this occasion information of the type you have requested is not held by Ofqual. Ofqual has not consented to the censorship of exam papers and no exam boards, including OCR, have redacted parts of exam papers with Ofqual's blessing.

Now this answer is rather problematic on a number of counts:

  • If Ofqual really don't hold information about exam boards allowing schools to censor exam papers (the type of information I requested) how have they been able to assure me that no exam boards have redacted parts of exam papers with Ofqual's blessing?
  • This answer immediately raises the question: Have some exam boards redacted parts of exam papers without Ofqual's blessing?
  • Or, are Ofqual trying to suggest that merely allowing OCR (and possibly other boards) to redact science questions does not constitute Ofqual giving its blessing to the redaction of science questions? In which case, are Ofqual not rather splitting hairs?
  • Actually, there was no suggestion that OCR had redacted exam papers. It seems to have been the schools themselves who did this - with OCR and then Ofqual's acquiescence.
and last but not least .....
  • However you interpret the various ambiguities, this answer would rather appear to suggest that Ofqual's views conflict with those of the government.
education minister Elizabeth Truss [said - echoing the OCR statement above] that a "proportionate and reasonable response" had been agreed with the school (ref)

So what is going on here? I think we should be told!