From the 90s to now - How has media coverage of exams changed?

From the 90s to now - How has media coverage of exams changed?

Journalists and photographers

Reflecting on more than 20 years in Public Relations for Cambridge Assessment, Bene't Steinberg charts a spike in newspaper coverage of exams, sparked by ambitious politicians, a fight for university places and an increase in public interest, and also how social media has changed the way journalists report this annual hot topic.

Around 125 articles are written in August/September about exams every year, and many more throughout the year. Contrast this to when I first started working with Cambridge Assessment’s predecessor (UCLES) in 1997 when barely a fifth of that were published. Further back, August 1982, I could find only one paragraph on A Level results in the TES – about Prince Edward passing the three A Levels he took.

Suddenly, millions of parents, grandparents, fond aunts and uncles had a family member going through the excitement and stress of a public examination...

Recent research shows a ‘big’ spike in the coverage of exams in 1988 – up to 25 articles – which reveals the earliest main driver of modern public interest in the topic. The new exam – GCSE – was for the first time taken by nearly every 16-year-old in the country (excluding Scotland). Suddenly, millions of parents, grandparents, fond aunts and uncles had a family member going through the excitement and stress of a public examination that could easily dictate their life for the next ten years.

The next spike goes up to nearly 40 articles and relates to the second main driver of public interest - school league tables. Education journalist Richard Garner tells of the first time league tables were produced (see page 6) when The Daily Mirror decided not to publish them in full for political reasons. Halfway through the afternoon he began to notice a number of senior executives queuing up at his desk to see how their local schools had fared. Wherever you stood politically, you wanted to know where the best schools near you were.

The third driver stems from a higher political focus on education. Prime Minister Tony Blair famously defined his priorities as “Education, Education, Education”. Indeed, a study by Cambridge University Press and Lancaster University reveals that nowadays ‘education’ crops up 42 times per million words in everyday conversation compared with only 26 times per million in the 1990s.

Finally, with numbers of A Level candidates rising and the need for more graduates, with places held to a Treasury cap, some 200,000 young adults were involved in the scramble for a university spot every year, bringing in even more parents and relatives with a stake in knowing more about exams.

Having seen off an attempted forced merger/nationalisation on behalf of the Joint Council for Qualifications’ (JCQ) predecessor in 1997, the agency I worked for was taken on by OCR to manage the delicate arena where politics and media meet. The then CEO of what was to become OCR, Dr Ron McLone, was the first exam board chief to realise that any modern organisation had to renew its social licence to operate all the time. He understood that people needed to be convinced of the usefulness and efficacy of an organisation and that, if an organisation is not to be at the mercy of happenstance, it needed to be on the front foot in relation to the media and the politicians who could change the nature of the operation almost on a whim. And twenty years ago OCR was the powerhouse of what came to be Cambridge Assessment.

For the next few years, the big stories were around lost papers...

For the next few years, the big stories were around lost papers – delivered to the wrong examiner, the wrong house, to examiners on holiday who hadn’t told anyone. There were thefts from Post Office vans and papers left on trains. I and colleagues attempted to put these into context and ensure those who were responsible took that responsibility. Five years of this led the JCQ to put all exam boards into a contract with a courier service and those stories disappeared.

We advised the JCQ to start holding the August press conference to try and explain what was happening in examinations, rather than putting up with invented stories every year. Then, when the print media played up to the cameras and the press conference became a bear pit, we advised them to separate print journalists from TV and radio – and sensible questioning once again took priority. Summer reporting regularly went over the 25 article mark and started the climb to the 50 mark. Claims of grade inflation began to be regularly heard.

I like to think that I and my colleagues played a role in getting journalists to move beyond the simplistic and to report on the realities. Of course, we then discovered that they started asking better, more penetrating questions that generated more pointed, albeit higher quality, articles!

Then came the A Level crisis of 2002 with OCR in the eye of the storm.

Then came the A Level crisis of 2002, with OCR in the eye of the storm. At the time, it felt like all the world was phoning me but the data only shows a medium level spike – and that’s because it doesn’t include the near endless coverage on the BBC and ITV - TV, radio and the newest player on the block the BBC website (est. c.1996). Those media so happily attacking exam boards for grade inflation were perfectly comfortable attacking OCR for grade deflation – nobody likes their marks to go down, no matter how deserved it is.

From the 90s to now bbc websiteThe consequences of 2002 – the Tomlinson fix and Tomlinson Part II – played out in 2003 where the print media spike goes over 50 for the first time. Another consequence was that Cambridge Assessment decided to stop outsourcing its PR and lobbying to an agency and take it in-house. I joined the organisation and started working across the full range of UK, International, English for Speakers of Other Languages, University entrance tests and the normal public interactions of any large organisation.

The pace hotted up with ‘Tomlinson III The Diploma’, combined with a hard-fought General Election enabling the media spike to go over 75 for the first time in 2005. From then on, the interest in exams at key times never drops below 50, occasionally reaches 75 and the ‘ordinary’ monthly number is greater and more continuous than ever before. Intense interest in the quality and type of questions grew; errors, mistakes and allegedly wrong marking came to the fore. My unit at Cambridge Assessment grew to meet these challenges.

Over time, however, journalists stopped wanting to create real relationships – fewer lunches, fewer chats, no leaving the desk in the day – transactional conversations were more frequent: “What’s the story?”, “I’ve heard... can you comment?” became standard.

Where five students stood in the corridor bemoaning the paper they’ve just taken, now five thousand share their pain online.

In 2012 another furore relating to grade deflation broke out. GCSEs required adjusting and a new inflation-buster called comparable outcomes had been implemented by the exam regulator. Again, people weren’t happy and media coverage spiked at over 150 articles for two months running. Thankfully, I wasn’t in the eye of that particular storm and left it all to the regulator.

Since then, every year sees nearly 100 articles, sometimes rising to over 125. But there’s a new kid on the block – something that not only is a publisher but also generates a lot of print and TV ‘news’ – social media in the form of Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, Instagram. Where once five students stood in the corridor bemoaning the paper they’d just taken, now five thousand share their pain online for the world to see. Journalists no longer have to check whether they are printing facts (news) about a subject by contacting the affected organisation, they write about the social media outrage that allegations create.

No longer do we see a news piece headlined: “Exam Board creates unfair paper”, something any media legal department will insist is ‘stood up’ by some sense of reality. Now we read a story: “Thousands of students tweet exam is unfair”, which requires no investigation at all into whether the exam actually was.

There has always been an element of storytelling in both media and public relations but the story was only ever designed to illustrate the facts. Now the story takes primacy and the facts are firmly in second place.

Finally, one of the other telling points made by the Cambridge Assessment research lies around ‘sentiment’ - the positivity or otherwise of media articles – with the author pointing out: “Some findings suggested that GCSE coverage is inherently contradictory. Individuals and schools attaining good results were praised, but the system itself was criticised.” I take this as evidence of what I have always guessed - that any disappointment schools, teachers and students suffer is the fault of the system and the exam boards that ‘represent’ it and that any good result is solely due to the efforts of the school, teachers and students themselves. A false reading - but one that is as it should be for students to believe in themselves and the power of education to change the world.


Bene't Steinberg
Group Director, Public Affairs, Cambridge Assessment

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