Exam Malpractice

In September 2019 John Dunford published his malpractice in exams report for JCQ (the Joint Council for Qualifications).  JCQ is in fact run by the exam boards, but then they are responsible for detecting and preventing malpractice.

In 2018 there were 2735 penalties for malpractice – a small number given that 11.5 million certificates were awarded that year.  There is no evidence that cheating is getting worse, but there is plenty of evidence that technology is creating new avenues for malpractice.  Furthermore, we know that pressure on students to do well in exams has increased and pressure on teachers to ‘obtain’ good results has grown significantly over recent years.

Malpractice is not only corrosive of trust in the system, it is something which can spread if not stopped.  And it is horrible for the majority of honest pupils if they think that other students are getting away with it.

What are the commonest types of malpractice?

The commonest types are:

Crib sheets

Smart phones taken into an exam.  Smart phones are not allowed into an exam hall but some students apparently can’t bear to be separated from them.  Obviously there is a distinction between mere possession of the phone and use of it.

Smart watches which can store notes.  These are also banned but it is too difficult for teachers to distinguish between a smart watch and a normal digital watch, so Dunford recommends banning all watches of any type.

Abuse of the access arrangements which can give a student 25% or 50% extra time. The number gaining extra time rose 13% between 2015 and 2018, which is suspicious.  School SENCOs may be under pressure to grant extra time.  The rules relating to access are found in the JCQ handbook but this is long (94 pages) and in parts unclear (for example, you can be allowed to use a word processor for writing your answers if that is ‘your normal way of working’).

Parents and teachers helping with coursework.  This problem was identified by Ofqual in 2013 which is one reason why coursework or centre-based assessment was stripped out of several GCSEs.  However, in some subjects coursework is essential, like art, design technology and vocational qualifications where workplace assessment is central to the validity of the assessment.   The only real answer to this problem is to increase the number of inspectors and external moderators.

Essay mills are growing in importance (you buy your essay online), not least in universities.

Stolen exam questions which are sold on the internet.  This has happened with Edexcel A-level maths three years in a row.  In each of these years my pupils at the London Academy of Excellence received messages offering them the papers.  We realised that it was essential that they knew what the procedure was when this happened and essential to do all we could to remove from their minds the thought that rival students were cheating.

Using private tutors as scribes where a student qualifies for a scribe, but the tutors do more than simply receive dictation – they help with the answer.

Teachers setting public exams but leaking questions to their pupils.  This problem was dealt with two years’ ago when Ofqual established new rules about teacher-set exam papers.

The time zones problem – students sitting a UK exam in Asia can send details to the UK before it is sat here.

What else can be done to limit malpractice?

Students need to be told more often that if they are found to have cheated they may lose the qualification.

JCQ needs to improve the clarity of its rules and increase the number of inspections.

Exam officers in schools need to be better trained, as do senior staff and invigilators.  More should become Chartered Assessors, a good qualification.

Heads need to create an ethical culture in their schools, discussing all these issues with pupils and staff.  They should report annually on the issue of exam malpractice to governors.

The exam boards need to analyse the results of pupils who were granted extra time to determine if there are any messages hidden in the data.

Technology needs to be used to counter the cheats – put micro-chips in exam paper packets so we know if they have been opened early, shut down internet access in exam halls and use plagiarism-detection software.

Preventing cheating is the responsibility of Ofqual, JCQ, the exam boards, heads, senior managers and exams officers.  Between them they are upping the game.


Professor Barnaby Lenon, Dean of  Education

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