The Shambles of CPE: a bit of a rant

2 Mar

I am not impressed.  For whatever reason, it simply seems as though both Cambridge ESOL and most of the major publishers seem to have shown and complete and utter disregard towards the students and prospective candidates studying at CPE level.

I published my analysis of the changes to CPE sixteen months ago and it’s proved to be one of the most popular posts I’ve written.  I simply do not understand why the corporate stakeholders in the process couldn’t achieve more in those sixteen months than they have done.

I appreciate that it takes a long time to put a book together and that some publishers were doubtless taking advantage of the exam changes to give some familiar titles a much needed overhaul, but I was shocked and frankly unimpressed when, at the start of the school year in September 2012, there were no titles available to prepare classes with.

What went wrong?  Is CPE really such a small market segment that you can ignore the needs of the students and teachers like this?  Are publishers unaware of when the school years of their target markets start?  Again, this is a euro-centric view and school years in other regions start at other times, but I think the first book that arrived on our school doorstep for the revised exam did so in January.  In our case, our preferred supplier also consistently lied to us about the imminent availability of our preferred coursebook, which meant that our students were essentially working with whatever adaptations our increasingly skillful proficiency teacher could come up with.

The first session of the revised CPE exam runs here next weekend.  The only practice tests for proficiency our students have seen are the two different versions that are available from the Cambridge ESOL website.  There is no task specific writing mark scheme available either for the free download materials or for the writing tasks in the handbooks, only a description of how the writing is assessed and some sample answers.

This is not good enough.

If you are an exam body you have not only a duty and responsibility to provide a secure, valid and reliable exam but you also have a duty of care to those other stakeholders who are involved in the exam process.  In other words, you have a clear and current responsibility to provide complete information about your exam, examples of the content and a full description of the assessment process.  Every coursebook and test book for the revised CPE I have seen gives equal weighting to the four parts of the exam.  It is only tucked away in a small corner somewhere in the handbook that Cambridge ESOL say otherwise and give the weighting as 40 / 20 / 20 / 20.  It is my view that Cambridge ESOL has let slip some of their responsibilities and it’s reputation as a full and fair provider of exams has been tarnished.

Neither are publishers free of criticism.  Why was it not possible to get the materials ready sooner?  The first revision bulletin published by Cambridge ESOL was released in October 2010 – was this not enough time to start getting projects ready and writers keyed up?  What about April 2011, when the “at a glance” changes to the specifications were published?  Let me think, that’s almost an 18 month lead in?  Is that really not enough time?  I don’t know what the full process of creating a coursebook is, from start to finish, though I am aware that there are a number of stages in the process, drafts and revisions and trialling.  I also appreciate that the reticence of Cambridge ESOL to share specifics probably doesn’t help.

Nonetheless – if you are in a materials business, if your core activity is the design, creation and publication of coursebooks, then I would hope that you also would take into account the needs of the people who buy your products and provide them in a timely manner.

Rant Over.  Normal service to be resumed shortly.


9 Responses to “The Shambles of CPE: a bit of a rant”

  1. timjulian Saturday 2 March 2013 at 13:12 #

    Well said! Couldn’t agree more.

  2. Dragana Cubrilo Saturday 2 March 2013 at 15:37 #

    An excellent post! Exactly what I’ve been discussing with my colleagues over the last couple of months. Not to mention the poor job both OUP and CUP have done with their new editions of Proficiency Masterclass and Objective Proficiency coursebooks, respectively.

    And what’s with the practice tests? It’s March and the registration period for the summer session has just started over here (Croatia), yet still no practice tests in sight. Despite the fact they were ordered two weeks ago, the moment we were informed they’re available to order. Does Cambridge ESOL really think candidates are going to rush over to the banks and pay the meagre sum of 200 euros to take the test without knowing the full format? To make things worse, the materials available from the Cambridge ESOL website contain mistakes (e.g. question no.2 in Part 1 of Reading and UoE has gone awol and an answer in Part 3 is wrong).

    You have identified it correctly – this is a complete shambles and it does call for a rant, at least. Or a letter of complaint to Cambridge ESOL form ever teacher preparing candidates for this C2 level certificate. I have already sent mine.


    • Lily-Anne Sunday 3 March 2013 at 05:32 #

      I have been ranting about this for months too – along with my colleagues. One of whom shares the class with me, the other three we are teaching with the aim of them passing the CPE.
      In November I asked some publishers about materials and they simply said that the market was too small so they weren’t gonna produce anything. I can understand this but I don’t get Cambridge – as you said Dave – how can we help prepare them when Cambridge itself doesn’t have materials!
      I have been waiting for months for the new proficiency testbuilder to be sent to us (after the publishers tried to palm off the the old one on us).

  3. mcvicarl Sunday 3 March 2013 at 13:42 #

    I thought it was just me not being able to find anything! I completely agree!

  4. Monica Stevenson Sunday 3 March 2013 at 21:33 #

    I couldn’t agree more! Well said.
    To my misfortune, I’ve added this ‘hiccup’ to the list of problems I’ve had with ‘the institution’. Happy days. 😦

  5. Cambridge English (@CambridgeEng) Tuesday 12 March 2013 at 15:01 #

    Thank you for your feedback on this.

    Dragana, Thank you for your comments. We’ve now amended the answer keys on the Reading and Use of English papers on the website.

    Monica, please feel free to contact us should you have any problems, our helpdesk team are there to answer any queries you may have. You can contact us here:

  6. Oxford University Press ELT Tuesday 19 March 2013 at 13:30 #


    You’re right that the proposed revisions for the new Proficiency exam came out from the exam board towards the end of 2010. We, like other publishers I’m sure, started work on the new courses immediately. The actual detail about changes to individual papers, and the restructuring of papers, took a lot longer to come out, however, and it wasn’t until June 2012 that the Handbook for Teachers was published. No-one would want to come out with material which didn’t match the new exam.

    Our new Proficiency Masterclass for the 2013 exam came out in August 2012 (probably the first new course for the revised exam) – in time for the start of the new academic year. The course included the Student’s Book, Online Skills and Language Practice and Online Practice Test, as well as the Class audio CD. It has over 150 online exercises including exam practice tests, grammar and vocabulary exercises and a full online CPE practice test – all for the new exam.

    In August 2012 we also published a free answer key booklet so that Teachers could get started straight away, rather than having to wait until February this year when the full Teacher’s Pack was published.

    A month later – September 2012 – we brought out The Proficiency Practice Tests for 2013 which has four full print practice tests as well as an online one.

    Ahead of publishing the course, we ran a series of webinars attended by over 900 CPE teachers from around the world to share with them as early as possible what we knew about the changes to the exam for 2013, months before other big publishers and before the exam board.

    OUP Exams Team

  7. Dennis Warren Monday 22 April 2013 at 22:42 #

    I agree with the OP.

    I work in Brazil, and everything gets to us even later – we had already begun our CPE courses before we got the material. Stuff that may have been published in January only reached us at the end of March (and even now some of the things that are available in the UK are not available to us).

    This meant we had to messily improvise, and teachers were unable to get a feel for the materials that they were going to teach.

    A classic case is the proficiency expert series. Coursebook arrived in Brazil at the end of March, but no sign as I write of the student resource book. The teachers’ book was a joke. They decided to have it available online only, and no-one in Brazil knew how to get access. It took weeks of bagging and writing emails to finally get access.

    We had the same issue when the FCE and CAE changes occurred in 2008. I am dreading 2015 when those two will change again. It makes us look unprofessional and sloppy, even though we try very clearly to explain why the relevant materials are available.


  1. The Shambles of CPE: a bit of a rant | teflgeek | ESOL exams | - Wednesday 6 March 2013

    […] I published my analysis of the changes to CPE sixteen months ago and it's proved to be one of the most popular posts I've written. I simply do not understand why the corporate stakeholders in the process couldn't achieve …  […]

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