Beating the exam cheats

Written by: Sir John Dunford | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

While the headlines were dominated by a proposed ban on watches in the exam hall, the independent inquiry into exam malpractice also made other important recommendations. Its chair, Sir John Dunford, explains

All watches are likely to be banned from examination rooms following the recommendation of the Independent Commission on Examination Malpractice, established by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), the over-arching organisation for the eight main awarding bodies.

JCQ established the Commission to consider the drivers of malpractice in the examination system and make recommendations as to how cheating could be reduced.

Like mobile phones, smart watches are already banned. However, with smart watches able to be switched at the press of a small button from smart to normal, the task for invigilators has become almost impossible. The only approach is to ban all watches, an outcome which looks likely to become part of the rules in summer 2020 after the JCQ board has considered the matter later this year.

The main thrust of the Commission’s report was the need for ethical and responsible behaviour on the part of staff and students involved in the exam process, from setting the papers to the certificates produced at the end.

The report itemised many forms of cheating by both staff and students. For students minded to cheat, there is shockingly a range of products available on Amazon, openly advertised as exam cheating, from cheating pens to miniature cameras and earpieces. The process of miniaturisation has made the detection of such devices difficult.

But the number of cheats is very small indeed. Just 0.02 per cent of candidates – that is, one in 5,000 – commits malpractice, with many of these offences involving taking a mobile phone into an exam room. Staff and school malpractice is rare too – 620 penalties were issued to staff and 95 penalties to exam centres in 2018 in England.

So, an important message is that the exam system is not broken. Indeed, the UK exam system is highly respected around the world, not least because the awarding bodies all have dedicated malpractice units well versed in every form of cheating.

Although there are drivers of malpractice, such as the pressure on students to obtain good grades and on staff from a high-stakes accountability system, these are never an excuse for malpractice. Exam centres should constantly be reinforcing the need to act with integrity. An ethical and responsible approach is stressed throughout the report, with heads of centres taking the lead in building a climate in which people do not cheat and, where they suspect that someone else is cheating, clear avenues exist for them to raise their concerns, with anonymity guaranteed for whistle-blowers who request it.

The Commission expressed concern that several definitions of malpractice exist, with variations between the JCQ definition and those used by awarding organisations. This is confusing and we recommended that a single definition should be agreed. The term “maladministration” is used in different ways by some awarding bodies and by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) in relation to key stage tests. This adds confusion and we think that “maladministration” should be subsumed within a new agreed definition of malpractice, with the difference in degree of offence reflected in the level of sanction.

Exams officers are at the centre of the drive against malpractice. They have a difficult task to perform, with many demands on their time, but the successful delivery of exams depends much upon their expertise. The Commission therefore recommends that their training should be subject to a Quality Mark and that there should be a new non-mandatory qualification framework to build their expertise. They should be line-managed by a senior member of staff with an up-to-date knowledge of exam regulations.

Elsewhere, the supporting documentation produced by JCQ is complex and difficult to navigate. We recommended an end-to-end review of the documentation, with a view to producing clearer, jargon-free and navigable regulations on the JCQ website. JCQ has already recognised the shortcomings of its material and has started the process of revision.
More frequent communications from JCQ to exam centres was also recommended, especially when changes are made to regulations. Wherever possible, changes should not be made in-year, but should be clearly signalled outside exam seasons.

Communications to students about exam regulations, and malpractice in particular, are vital. From an early stage in their course, students should be told about the need to avoid malpractice and the sanctions that could be applied. We advocate the good practice of getting students to sign a form at the start of their exams stating that they understand the regulations and potential sanctions.

Centres should also build their expertise in exams and assessment, so that both in-course assessment and terminal exams are carried out to the highest standards. The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA) is the professional body on assessment and provides courses and accreditation. We recommend that every school should have at least one CIEA-accredited Chartered Assessor.

The number of access arrangements and special considerations has increased considerably in recent years. Whether this is because of the different style of assessment now being used at GCSE and A level or because centres are abusing the system is not clear. It is clear, however, that some centres have a high proportion of students with access arrangements, while other centres have many fewer than their entry numbers would lead one to expect. Further research is needed on this.

All centres are subject to the Equality Act 2010 and should be making “reasonable adjustments” under JCQ regulations for those with SEND. Exams officers and SENCOs are on the frontline on this and should be given the time to carry out the required administration and tests.

As in all walks of life, there are a few dishonest people in education among the hundreds of thousands of staff and students involved in examinations every year. It is the responsibility of everyone to prevent malpractice so that the exam playing field is as level as it is possible to be.

  • Sir John Dunford is the chair of the Independent Commission on Examination Malpractice.

Further information

Independent Malpractice Commission, including the final report (September 2019):


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