An undercover investigation by The Daily Telegraph has revealed that teachers across the country have been paying up to £230 a day to attend seminars with chief examiners, where they are given tips and advice on exam questions and the exact wording that pupils should use to obtain higher marks, write Holly Watt Claire Newell, Robert Winnett and Graeme Paton at the Telegraph.
This "advice" goes far beyond what the standard guidance deems acceptable, and has left the exam board vulnerable to accusations of undermining the purpose of exam syllabuses by encouraging "teaching to the test".
Undercover reporters from the Telegraph attended 13 meetings organized by the examination board the WJEC – which is used by English schools – and found that teachers were routinely given "information about future questions, areas of the syllabus that would be assessed and specific words or facts students must use to answer in questions to win marks."
"We're cheating," one examiner was recorded to have said.
"We're telling you the cycle [of the compulsory question]. Probably the regulator will tell us off."
He then went on to advise one undercover reporter that that he was telling them how to "hammer exam technique" rather than the approach of "proper educationalists" to "teach the lot".
Over the past 23 years exam marks have continued to rise, reaching new records year after year. And these disclosures will work to affirm what many critics believe – that a "dumbing down" of standards in British schools has led to grade inflation in exams over the past decade.
Ministers flagged up their concerns to Ofqual last week that competition between exam boards may be fuelling the "race to the bottom" for exam standards, says the Telegraph.
Geoff Lucas, the former assistant chief executive for the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA), Ofqual's predecessor, said the examiners appeared "damned by their own words". He said:
"There is a line between guiding teachers about a topic and telling, giving them more than hints, clear steers, about what will be in the test."
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education and former head teacher, said:
"It is cheating â¦ sadly for those in the profession it won't come as a surpriseâ¦ behind closed doors, few doubt there has been a dumbing down of standards and that practices are corrupt."
Over the past seven years the spending on exam fees has almost doubled from £154 million to £302.6 million. Schools claim that, to deal with the paperwork, they have to employ two exam officers, as they try to "play the system".
A spokesman for WJEC came out all guns blazing, accusing the Telegraph's use of the word "cheating" as injudicious and inaccurate.
"The advice given in this particular context, relating to nine studies in depth and three thematic studies, is clearly set out in the GCSE History Teachers' Guide. The examiner at the training course attended by a Telegraph reporter was confirming long-standing guidance on this subject."
Education secretary Michael Gove has ordered an inquiry into the claim, writes Jeevan Vasagar at the Guardian.
Gove has ordered Glenys Stacey, chief executive of the exams regulator Ofqual, to investigate exam boards' conduct after the allegations, and report back within two weeks.
"As I've always maintained, it is crucial our exams hold their own with the best in the world. We'll take whatever action is necessary to restore faith in our exam system. Nothing is off the table."
An Ofqual spokesman said:
"We have made it clear that this is an issue of significant interest to us. Exams must be run in a way that is fair and open to all candidates."
Angela Harrison, Education correspondent at the BBC claims that the seminars that exam boards hold are to inform teachers about their qualifications and tell them how students did in the previous year's exams. And while they're allowed, this investigation has uncovered some individuals crossing the line by informing what topics would and would not come up.
Harrison points out that something else is under question here now – the potential conflict between exam boards, working like as businesses, and the need to maintain exam standards.
"Michael Gove is concerned that exam boards might be tempted to offer easier exams to attract schools to them – and thus contribute to a "dumbing down" of standards. Schools want their students to do well and are under league table pressure to do that too. The whole area is now under intense scrutiny."
Gareth Pierce, WJEC chief executive, told BBC Wales that the WJEC has suspended two examiners in wake of the revelations.
Pierce believes that the key issue here is whether the advice being given at the seminars was too specific.
"In the short term, those examiners have been suspended from their current duties with WJEC pending the investigation being completed," he said.
The WJEC has begun its investigation and hopes to complete it within the next 48 hours.
"If we find that there has been a change in integrity, fairness of the exam, then obviously we would produce a new version of it," Mr Pierce said.
Swift action by the WJEC has been ordered by the Welsh education minister, Leighton Andrews, who is said to be taking these allegations very seriously.
"I've asked my officials to take the issue up and they're in close touch with the examination board," he said.
A Welsh government spokesman said:
"As the qualifications regulator for Wales, the Welsh government takes seriously all allegations of malpractice."
"We work with the regulators in England (Ofqual) and Northern Ireland (CCEA) to ensure that qualifications give a fair and reliable indication of knowledge, skills and understanding so that the public can have confidence in the qualifications system.
The regulators are said to be liaising with each other and the awarding organizations to get a fuller picture of what has happened. It is then thought that appropriate action will be taken across the board. They are under pressure, however – as Michael Gove is thought to want answers quickly.
Two have lost their jobs so far, but many are speculating that they won't be the last.