This page does contain reference to letters, etc, which you won't be able to access via the Internet. If you are interested in reading the whole thing, please write to me at : Brian Daugherty, 55 Victoria Road North, Portsmouth PO5 1PW, Britain. View background information on this web page.

How to claim that Black is White, and get away with it (or how George Orwell is relevant in modern-day Britain).

My Experience  of Shoddy Examination Standards in the Mathematics Department of Newcastle University, and the associated implications for examinations in  general, in Britain.

 

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it.

 

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him. "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

 

 

Brian Daugherty                                            Brian.Daugherty@dunelm.org.uk


 

George Orwell wrote of a terrifying world where belief in two and two making four is an aberration – it  marks you out as an outsider, someone who can be treated like an idiot.  I have had an experience with Newcastle University, in which the University has attempted to deny the truth of mathematical statements – a denial which is directly equivalent to denying that two and two equals four. In modern-day Britain they can get away it – or have done so far. I would suggest that this is highly indicative of the extent that exams in Britain can be “fiddled” in general, particularly in showing how exams can be made easier while the powers-to-be can simultaneously deny that standards have dropped at all. 

 

Attached are two pairs of questions. These pairs are identical pairs – identical in the sense that 8 + 8 = ? is an identical question to 6 + 6 = ?. (If you have no mathematical training, then you could still accept this as being possibly true due the wording in one of the pairs being almost identical.)

 

Despite these questions being identical, they were set in successive years as exam questions by the mathematics department of Newcastle University. The real rub is that they were set as questions for the same students. The first question in each pair was the question they were asked in their second year exams, the second question in each pair are the questions they were asked in their third year exams.

 

This  situation allowed students to complete about two-thirds of the third year paper by answering questions effectively identical to questions they had met on this second-year paper

 

Stated differently - if a student had enrolled on the third-year course but done no work whatsoever during the third year, it would still have been possible for them to pass the end-of-year exam just by revising the material they met in the second year.

 

My initial complaint about this situation was met with threats of libel from Newcastle University, and then rebuffed with the unambiguous claim that the questions were ‘not even remotely similar’ (although it did take them all of five and a half years to produce this rebuff).

 

This claim is surprising enough, but the situation really started to become surreal when seeking help from other sources, I came across a surprising amount of support for this rebuff, including from my MP, who actually became very aggressive towards me.

 

Nevertheless, the one thing that I have in my favor is that I am correct, and Newcastle University are lying. The questions are identical, and since this is mathematics, I can show objectively that these questions are identical. Latterly I have received a letter of support for my view (just the one) from a Professor of Mathematics at Southampton University, but I am very far from convincing everyone.

 

Newcastle Part 1

 

Newcastle’s initial response to my complaint about the similarity of the questions was to tell  that “if I made any further allegations, Newcastle University would not hesitate to take legal proceedings”. I immediately made the same allegations (and have continued to do so for years) without being sued for libel.

 

They then mostly ignored me for years until, after five years and five months, I received a  response informing me that they “were unable to find any questions that were even remotely similar” [1].  This was despite me making absolutely crystal-clear which questions I was talking about.

 

This was followed, surprisingly swiftly, by another letter two months later tending to contradict their previous letter, but still denying that the questions  were identical[2].

 

After being ignored for so long, it was genuinely surprising to receive this second letter ‘out of the blue’ – I can only assume that they had painted themselves into a corner with their previous letter, i.e. by the fact that it was so obviously and blatantly untrue, maybe leading to at least one person, somewhere, pointing this out.

 

References in the second letter to there being ‘other questions on the exam paper’ totally miss the point that the ‘identical questions’ were inserted because students couldn’t actually do these ‘other questions’. The reason why students couldn’t do these ‘other questions’ was because the Professor who was responsible for tutoring the course was not very good, to put it as mildly as possible.

 

Talking about ‘other questions on the paper’ is something that I don’t think that a GCSE or GCE exam board would be able to get away with, under a similar situation.

 

Mike Hancock, Member of Parliament – Part 1

 

I took my complaint as far as my MP, Mike Hancock. I received a letter back from him[3], containing the opinions of a personal friend of his, a Professor of Mathematics at Southampton University (the letter does mention a “Senior Lecturer”, but it later transpired that this should read “Professor”).  This letter contains specific statements as to why Newcastle University were correct to describe the questions are totally dissimilar. These specific statements are wrong.

 

Southampton University

 

I have tried to take the matter up with Southampton University itself, although I don’t actually know the identity of the Professor mentioned in the previous section (Hancock’s friend).

 

The Head of Department, Professor Adam Webber has been very evasive, and Professor Landsberg, Emeritus Professor of Applied Mathematics, stated that he did not know how to do these questions, and made a show of actually sending my documents back to me, adding that he didn’t even understand what I was trying to get at[4] (the only person to express this lack of understanding – you might be interested to know that Professor Landsberg is a prominent MENSA member).

 

On a happier note, Professor Ray D’Inverno, has written to me stating that the idea that these questions are “totally different” is “absolutely absurd” [5], although he is the only person to support me.

 

Mike Hancock, MP – Part 2

 

My further dealings with Mike Hancock have become very surreal. In a nutshell, he has continued to believe in the statements of his friend at Southampton University, and in fact became quite abusive at one stage (using the word ‘fucking’ and shouting at me). He said I should collect all my documents together and throw them in the bin.

 

I sent Ray D’Inverno’s letter to him, emphasising the contradiction with his letter expressing the opinions of his  Southampton friend - but he just ignored me.

 

My subsequent complaints against Hancock were described by one of his supporters as ‘grubby’, the very same person ringing me up later and calling me a ‘bit of an idiot’.

 

You can see what happened here : I went to Hancock because of the incompetence of a Professor of Mathematics, and the attempts of his colleagues to cover up for him, and Hancock responded by giving me the incompetent ideas of another Professor of Mathematics at Southampton University and then attempted to cover up for him because this latter Professor is a colleague of his.

 

Newcastle University - Part 2

 

Newcastle sent me a letter[6] claiming the statements in Hancock’s letter as proof of the correctness of their stance. But the statements in Hancock’s letter are verifiably wrong, and this must surely be a sad reflection on Newcastle’s academic standards that they can attempt to use Hancock’s letter in this way.

 

The same letter talked about statements I have received from members of the Mathematics Department, when in fact I have never received anything from the Mathematics Department itself.

 

By now you probably realize what I am trying to show - that Newcastle University, like all Universities, can just lie and lie, and get away with it.

 

Portsmouth University

 

During my time as a postgraduate at Portsmouth, most people I have asked about this problem have just ignored me. 

 

I have a letter from Professor Maartens who says he doesn’t want to give me any clarification, because he ‘doesn’t want to get involved’. This is the only time that anyone has specifically refused to give me help with a mathematical query, as though for all the world this query was covered by the Official Secrets Act – You might think that telling me orally wouldn’t have been too troublesome, given that an verbal statement isn’t worth the paper it is written on (w.r.t. getting ‘involved’).

 

One lecturer decided to stop speaking to me altogether (which is a very weird response), and one person, Dr. D. Coule, did give me specific reasons as to why why the questions were not identical (different specific reasons than those mentioned earlier by Hancock’s Southampton friend). These specific reasons were wrong.

 

When I presented my own worked solutions to Dr. Coule, he stated that I had answered the questions in ‘a strange way’, without being able to point to how or where I had answered in ‘a strange way’, and without giving the slightest indications as to what the ‘correct way’ is.

 

Professor Tamiz told me that I ‘did not have much of a case’. Despite several requests for  the specific reasons as to why I ‘don’t have much of a case’, he has just ignored me.

 

Quarry Bank School (Calderstones School), Liverpool

 

In response to requests for assistance from my old school, I received a letter from the Head of Mathematics[7], supporting the idea that the questions were different, backed up with the opinions of several new graduates of Mathematics, friends of his son, who had come to the conclusion that the questions were totally different.

 

I can’t judge the Head of Maths too unkindly, because he was kind enough to answer my request when all around were ignoring me, and his reply appears genuinely bona fide. I don’t think he still believes the questions are different.

 

However, almost simultaneously I received a letter from the Headmaster[8] who has taken  a totally different attitude. He told me the questions were different and he is sticking with this belief, quite aggressively. He attempted to give me some specific reasons (yet a third set of reasons - different from the other two), but like the other two, they are bogus. (This Headmaster is not the same Headmaster as when I was there)

 

Newcastle University – Part 3

 

The second question I would like the University to answer is this :

 

Is it true that a mass migration took place from the course in question, due to the blatant encouragement of the lecturer involved (complete with warnings about how extremely poor results had been in the past), a migration which slimmed the course down from about two dozen students to ten students ? And if they agreed that this migration had taken place, how did they justify it ?

 

They knew there was a problem with the course and responded by attempting to make sure that as few students as possible actually followed the course.

 

Note about money

 

I had actually send them some money (to be used as expenses) while trying to extract an answer to my first question. This might seem naïve now, but at the time I honestly thought that it would produce either of these two options

 

1.       Shame them into answering my question

 

2.       Show fairly clearly that they don’t want to answer the question, and the implications that stem from this.

 

Option 1 did not occur, and the ‘desired effects’ of this Option No. 2 have been less than I originally expected, so far.

 

I lost 200 pounds this way, when Newcastle University just bare-facedly gave the money away to charity (or so they claim).

 

Kate Adie    

                 

To be fully comprehensive, I have also tried to contact Kate Adie, who gives a lot of direct publicity to Newcastle University, while seemingly publicising injustices around the world. No reply has ever been received.

 

Conclusions

 

 

With ‘less-objective’ subjects it will therefore be even easier to fiddle an exam.

 

I have no confidence that it would be any less hard for GCSE/GCE exam boards to lie and get away with it. 

 

 

·         It is ‘lucky’ that the questions are so similar - if the questions were not so identical, e.g. about 90% identical, then my ‘struggle’ would have become almost impossible, in my view.

 

 

 

So the general atmosphere is set anyway, and therefore university staff in general would be reluctant to actually express an opinion on  any allegations of wrongdoing in other Universities, no matter how obviously true these allegations were.

 

I don’t think schoolteachers would be any more free to criticize exams, i.e. to actually put forward the idea that their school’s exam performance is improving because the exams are getting easier rather than because the school is improving,

 

·         It shows the depth to which even people of expertise will support the status quo, even if the status quo is verifiably wrong – some people think that the  The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen is a fairy story, whereas it is actually a damning indictment of the way many people (don’t) think.

 

 

Web Pages

 

www.merzcourt.co.uk  My own web page, stating some of the claims in this paper in more detail.

 

www.cafas.org.uk - CAFAS (The Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards) is an organization which grew out of the Swansea problem. Their statement proclaims :” CAFAS faces the fact that the British educational system is decaying. The Council will not collaborate with the pretence that this is not happening nor will it compromise on the right to say so. The principle of academic freedom enshrined in the Education Reform Act (1988) - that "academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs" - is increasingly under attack, particularly when staff expose instances of corruption and shoddy standards 

 

http://www.middleages.co.uk   Disputes in British Universities

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/fileon4/index__20021126_universitydegrees.shtml 

‘File on 4’  on BBC Radio 4 in November 2002. This program expressed concern about assessment in British Universities. The full transcript can be read on

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/fileon4/transcripts/20021126_university_funding.pdf

 

www.mike-hancock.co.uk  Details of my grievances against Mike Hancock, MP

 

http://bdaugherty.tripod.com/disputes/ff.html relates the story of  Francis Foecke and his dispute with The Mathematics Department of Bristol University, arising from problems with assessment.

 



[1] Letter from Newcastle unable to find any questions which are even remotely similar.

[2] Letter from Newcastle University contradicting the above

[3] Letter from Mike Hancock, MP

[4] Email from Professor Landsberg

[5] Letter from Ray D’Inverno

[6] Letter from Newcastle referring to Hancock

[7] Letter from Mr Bennion, Calderstones School

[8] Letter from Mr Davis, Calderstones School

[9] Letter from Webber (Newcastle University)

Email from John Midgeley