Exam malpractice: The true picture

Written by: Sarah Hannafin | Published:
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Malpractice by school staff in public examinations always gets media attention, but this leads us to think that it is far more common than is really the case, says Sarah Hannafin

The start of a new term is always a time of optimism for school staff and students. The possibilities for the year ahead are endless, and end-of-year exams and assessments are far enough off not to cast a shadow.

At the start of September the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) published the report of its Independent Commission into Malpractice in the UK assessment system (see further information).

The media attention on school and teacher malpractice means that the impact on confidence in the exam system is disproportionate when compared to the number of incidences that actually occur.

The data clearly identifies where the focus needs to be: 2,735 penalties were issued to students in 2018 – with the introduction of unauthorised materials into the examination room being the main reason. This has increased by 26 per cent compared to 2017 and mobile phones accounted for 47 per cent of all student penalties.

This compares with 620 penalties issued to 475 members of centre staff (from 325 centres) in 2018 (a decrease of 40 per cent on 2017). The largest proportion of offences were for maladministration with improper assistance to candidates the second most common offence.

Just 95 penalties were issued across 80 centres in 2018 and decreases in malpractice offences were seen across almost all categories. The largest proportion of offences in 2018 were for maladministration, followed by breaches of security.

The data therefore suggests that student malpractice is increasing whereas malpractice by teachers and schools is decreasing.

There are increased internal and external pressures for students, teachers and schools which can contribute to incidents of malpractice. Some of the risks are due to the high-stakes accountability system which risks producing greater incentives to breach than to maintain regulation.

There are: continually increasing standards that students must reach; a link between student achievement and teacher performance; a punitive approach to published performance measures – all of which can put excessive pressure on staff and students.

There is still a lack of understanding of the term malpractice, and the range of actions and inactions which it can cover. Different institutions use different definitions, which is not helpful to schools. We suggest a single, clear definition be adopted which can be well understood by everyone.

More must be done to raise awareness and increase understanding of malpractice and to support teachers and centres to manage any risks. Giving clear examples of what malpractice could look like in different circumstances would help too.

We are aware that concerns have been raised regarding the significant increase in the use of Access Arrangements (AAs) and the possibility that some of these may amount to malpractice.

The increase may in part be a result of increased awareness of their availability, including among parents. The resources schools have available will have an impact on their ability to assess students for AAs, which may explain why their use in independent schools has increased at a faster rate than in state schools.

We believe that AAs must be available to all students who are entitled to them and any improvements to the system must not disadvantage those students nor add to the workload of school staff.

The use of social media, mobile phones and other technology presents particular challenges for schools. This technology enables widespread sharing of information and can intensify the impact of any malpractice. Students need to understand why this is an issue.

Arguably most students who receive a penalty for having unauthorised material in the exam room were not intending to use their phone to cheat. Some still believe that as long as their device is switched off, then it is not a problem.

For many these devices are vitally important and likely to be the most expensive item they own – this is perhaps why some are reluctant to leave them at home or in their bags during exams (or to hand them over when requested). The processes and procedures adopted in centres to enable students to hand in these items must recognise this, but must also be practical to implement.

An example of good practice, where the rules are well understood and expectations clear, is where seats in the exam hall are identified by a lettered row and number. On each desk is a small plastic bag containing a card with the relevant letter and number. Students place devices in the bag, these are collected, and remain in boxes at the front of the hall before being returned at the end of the exam.

The most important thing is that any additional response to manage the risk of malpractice must be proportionate to the size of the problem – the total number of incidences is very small in comparison to the number of assessments taken by students each year.

The cost of any strengthening of safeguards must not result in schools having to spend more money on exams and their administration. The funding crisis in education means that many schools are unable to meet any additional expenditure.

A total of £2.8 billion has been cut from school budgets since 2015, and the average cut to a secondary school’s budget is £185,200. The funding crisis in 16 to 19 education is particularly acute. One of the consequences of increasing the safeguarding measures required by awarding organisations is an increase in costs and our concern is that these increased costs might be passed onto schools.

As the new term gets underway, the focus should be on everything that students will be learning in the coming year. At the end, they will have the opportunity to demonstrate what they know. While malpractice is rare, we do need to eliminate it, so that all students know that they will get a fair reward for their hard work.

  • Sarah Hannafin is senior policy advisor of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Further information

Independent Malpractice Commission, JCQ:www.jcq.org.uk/examination-system/imc-home


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